Tag: Acts

The humble leader

by on Jul.04, 2008, under Bible Study, Reflection, Sermon

What essential qualities make a leader? Courage? Wisdom? Insight? Integrity? Yes, all of these things are necessary. But what about humility? In today’s culture, it seems, leadership and humility are mutually exclusive – you can have one or the other, but not both.

This is not the way the Bible portrays leadership, however.

Moses would have to take the prize for one of the greatest leaders of the Old Testament. Through his leadership, an entire nation (600,000 men1 plus who knows how many women and children!) were released from slavery; he was the one to whom God first revealed his name; he met with God face to face; Moses received stone tablets detailing God’s commandments on the mountain at Sinai; and, if that weren’t enough, he wrote the first 5 books of the Bible! Quite a resumé, hey?

For all these remarkable achievements, however, the Bible describes him as, ‘very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth’ !2

But it was not always this way. Consider the story told of him in Exodus 2. Moses was an Israelite brought up as a prince of the land of Egypt, in Pharaoh’s own house. He ‘was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action’.3 One day, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He came across ‘an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.’4 Stephen, retelling the story in Acts 7, says that ‘Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.’5 Humility doesn’t even get a look in here! Look, then at the results of his ‘ministry': he has no credibility with his fellow Israelites, who reject him; Pharaoh attempts to kill Moses; and Moses is forced to flee Egypt for his life!6

Let’s face it: nobody wants to follow someone who believes that they are God’s gift to humanity; some will follow in hopes of securing their own ambitions and power by clinging to the egotist’s coat-tails, but nobody wants to follow such a person. Moses surely fit into this category based on the evidence we have seen. So what was it that transformed him into the leader of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people?

I believe that the answer may be found in the next chapter of Exodus. Whilst minding his father-in-law’s sheep, God appears to him in the form of a burning bush and instructs Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

Moses asks God two very important questions in this passage: ‘Who am I?’ (v. 11); and ‘Who are you?’ (v. 13). In the answers to these two questions, Moses learned what was required to be a good leader. When he asks ‘Who am I?’, God’s response is not, ‘you are a learned man,’ nor is it, ‘you are a man strong in word and deed’. God says, ‘I will be with you.’ Moses asks, ‘Who are you?’ and is told ‘I am who I am’ (v. 14), and ‘the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’.

Humility comes in recognising that it is through God that we are who we are; trying to lead outside of this truth will result in failure, but humbling ourselves and acknowledging him as the one to whom all glory and honour is due frees us to be the leaders God calls us to be.

Perhaps some of you are wondering, ‘Does being humble mean denying our own God-given gifts, talents and abilities?’ Others might be thinking ‘Isn’t humility just another word for doormat?’ The answer is no, of course not. Evangelist Billy Graham puts it like this, “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.’… Nowhere in Scripture does this word carry with it the idea of being spiritless and timid. It carries the idea of being tamed, like a wild horse that has been brought under control.”7 The picture is of a powerful creature who uses his strength according to his master’s will.

How does this look in practice? I can only apply these teachings to my own life. To do so and then talk about it I run the risk of being understood to say, ‘See, I have it all figured out’… which is both untrue and undermines the very message I am trying to get across. The story is told of the preacher whose congregation gave him a medal for being the most humble preacher ever… then took it away from him the next week when he wore it!8 Nevertheless I must take that risk, hoping that God might use my example to speak to you. I want to give you a few specific examples of how I apply this message of humility in the area of preaching.

I ask God the same two questions that Moses asked: who am I? and who are you? When I preach, I recognise that I am unable to change a life by my words, but that God is gracious and merciful, desiring that people should know him and love him – and his words are ‘power… for the salvation of everyone who believes’9. When I have that sorted out, I can preach confidently, knowing that it is God’s word that changes lives.

Before I preach, however, I must first apply God’s word in my own life. Tonight I am sharing a part of that process with you, but this is not always the case. Nevertheless it is important that I do it, otherwise I am saying this truth is good enough for others, but not good enough for me. The arrogant leader tells others to do what he himself is unwilling to do; we call this hypocrisy.

Another area where I must be humble is to listen to the instruction of others; I call this being teachable. I recognise that I am far from being a perfect preacher (or musician, or husband… or anything else, for that matter). For that reason I listen to those who have experience in these things – and I try and learn from whatever lessons they are willing and able to teach me.

Finally, I submit to those who have authority over me. I may not agree entirely with their decisions, and I may respectfully argue my case; but once a decision is made I ‘submit to their authority’ and ‘obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden’ since ultimately ‘they keep watch over [me] as men who must give an account’.

There are many other things I could say here, but I believe that it is more important that you take some time to consider what role humility will play in your life. To help you do this, I have listed some Bible passages and associated questions to act as a starting point.

Questions

Moses

Read Exodus 3 for yourself.

  • What questions does Moses ask God? How and why are these significant?
  • What are God’s replies?
  • What changes do you see in Moses?

You may wish to consider the contrast between: Exodus 2 (Moses kills the Egyptian and flees Egypt); Acts 7:20-37 (Stephen’s retelling of Exodus 2-3); and Numbers 12:1-8 (Aaron & Miriam challenge Moses’ leadership).

John the Baptist

John the Baptist is a good example of humility in the New Testament. John baptised many people before Jesus showed up, and ministered to many hundreds if not thousands. Jesus said of him ‘Among those born of women, there hs not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist’ (Matthew 11:11; also Luke 7:28). Yet when his younger cousin (i.e. Jesus) shows up, the crowds flock to Jesus instead.

  • How would this make you feel? How would you respond?

Read John 3:22-36 (John says of Jesus, ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’) for John’s response.

  • What do you think made John so gracious? How would he have answered the questions, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who is Jesus?’
  • In what ways are you like John? In what ways different? What are you going to do about it?

Jesus

As always when looking for a positive role model in the Bible, we find our best example in Jesus. If anyone had reason to think they were something, surely it would be Jesus! The Bible describes him as the Son of God, in whom God is well pleased (Matthew 3:17; see also Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22).

Read Philippians 2:5-11.

  • What is Jesus’ attitude? How does he demonstrate humility?
  • How is your attitude the same? How is it different? What are you going to do about it?

Take some time to pray through any insights and applications that God has brought to mind; ask that God will help you to have the attitude of Christ Jesus.


Endnotes

  1. Exodus 12:36
  2. Numbers 12:3
  3. Acts 7:22
  4. Exodus 2:11-12
  5. Acts 7:25
  6. Exodus 2:13-15
  7. Quoted in Myra & Shelley 2005, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 197.
  8. Swindoll, C. R. 1998, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 278.
  9. Romans 1:16
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The Authentic Church: Serving, Preaching and Winning (Acts 6:1-7)

by on Nov.19, 2007, under Sermon

Authenticity is a big deal. When you buy something, particularly something precious, you want to be sure you are getting what you paid for. Whether it is a house, a car, a watch, a computer or anything else, if it’s not the real deal then you are getting ripped off. Some time ago, I bought some microphones on eBay that appeared to be genuine; I very quickly discovered, through their poor performance and the rate at which they fell apart, that they were not.

Rolex manufacture very expensive, very valuable watches. In order to give their customers confidence that what they are buying is a genuine Rolex, and not some copy that has been cheaply manufactured, they embed all kinds of tell-tale signs that are very difficult to fake. Similarly in this country, as in others, our currency is marked with special security features that are very difficult to emulate. So long as you know what to look for, it is very easy to spot a fake, and thus to judge between what is valuable and what is not.

Over the course of this term we have been delving in to the world of the early church, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. They certainly weren’t perfect, as tonight’s passage highlights… but they were authentic. As you read through, ask yourself, “What are the signs of an authentic church?” Then ask, “Is our church authentic?”

The Choosing of the Seven
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.1

The authentic church deals with problems

I rate perfection as one of the biggest problems Australians face today. Not so much its absence, and certainly not its presence… but just that we expect it. We are always in search of the perfect latté, the perfect tan, the perfect teacher, the perfect job, the perfect holiday. If it’s not perfect then it is not good enough: if the service is slow we don’t go back; if we aren’t good at something first time then it ‘wasn’t meant to be’ and we move on.

We take this attitude into our relationships. It comes as no surprise to us to hear that the official divorce rate in Australia is that just over 40% of marriages in this country end in divorce. Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay traces this, in part, to what he calls our “cult of perfectionism”.2 As he says, our expectations “can infect our experience of love and happiness by introducing the gnawing doubt that this isn’t as good as it should be; that perfect bliss is eluding us; that romantic love should never fade; that we should be able to establish perfect (or even excellent) relationships without too much hard work.”3 And so whenever we come across evidence to reinforce our doubts, when disappointment inevitably comes our way, it is easier to conclude that this is not the real deal; we deserve better.4

As if that weren’t enough, many Christians apply the same reasoning to their churches; they won’t commit to a church that is anything less than perfect. If the music is too loud or the wrong style; the congregation too big or too small; the sermons too long or too short then it is not perfect, and therefore cannot be an authentic church.5

Well, it is clear from tonight’s text that the church in Jerusalem was not perfect. Very early in their life together a problem arose. Luke wastes no words in getting to the point: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (1).

The church was the Centrelink of its day – if you were getting any kind of welfare payment at all, then you were getting it from the church. In particular if you were a widow without family to support you then you were utterly reliant upon the church for your livelihood. So it’s a big deal if certain groups in the church are missing out. Luke is not entirely clear whether the complaint was actually justified, he simply notes that the complaint arose. And in some ways it doesn’t really matter as it is the result that is important: the church was divided, split into factions and arguing with one another.

Do you think we face these kind of issues in our church today? You bet we do! How often have you heard someone complaining, “Why do they have to do that?” Or, “I wish this was different.” You might have even done it yourself – I’m pretty sure I have. And sometimes those whinges become a little more significant, gain a little bit of support from someone else, and someone else again. Meanwhile, someone else is arguing the other side of your case and before you can blink you have 2 or more factions, each absolutely adamant that they are in the right and unwilling to budge.

When I was leading youth group at another church, we had a new youth pastor come to our church. He had some new and exciting ideas about how the youth group should be run. Chief among them was that the youth group should be divided in to two groups: a senior and a junior high school group, much the way that we have Zion and the Cross here at St John’s. There were 2 main reactions to this. Some were interested to explore this new idea and see where it led. Others were convinced that this would be the worst thing ever, and opposed it every way that they could. As a result, the group, already intentionally divided into smaller groups, further divided; and ultimately disintegrated altogether, eventually culminating in most group members leaving to go and join other groups.

Unlike us, however, the church in Jerusalem didn’t have the option of just moving down the street to Trinity Baptist Church, or All Saints Uniting, or even Christian City Church Jerusalem. For good or ill, they were all in it together. So how did they deal with their problems?

Here’s how it went down: So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn the responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (2-4).

It sometimes amazes me how quickly a big problem can be dealt with when you take it to the right people. If you have a busted up car, you take it to the panel beater, not the dentist; if your dog is sick you go to the vet, not the butcher; and no matter how good a photographer your neighbour is, you don’t necessarily ask them to fix your plumbing. Well, the same is true in this case: the problem (perhaps straight away, perhaps eventually, we can’t say for certain) reached the ears of the apostles – the only ones with the authority and respect to not only come up with a solution but also put it into practice.

I think we can learn a lot from that. How often have you seen something wrong, or something you didn’t agree with, and done nothing about it? Or perhaps just had a quiet whinge to your friend, your family or your Bible study group? Let me tell you that, unless you take it to the right person or people, nothing is going to happen. Let’s say you have a suggestion for how we can improve things here at the 7pm service. You could tell your friend about it, or your mum, or your work-mate… but whilst they might give you a pat on the back and tell you what a good idea it is, chances are that they are not going to be able to do much more than that. If, on the other hand, you raised it with Jake, or with the 7pm team, then there is a much better chance that something will be done about it. At the very least, your idea will be considered by those who have the ability to make a decision.

Coming back to the passage, the first thing to note about the apostles’ response is that they recognised there was a problem. It would have been all too easy to simply say, “We don’t have time for this now,” or “This is not terribly important in the scheme of things,” either of which would no doubt have been true. The apostles, however, accepted that this was a problem – if not the stated issue of food distribution which, as already mentioned, may have been an issue in perception rather than reality, then certainly that there was division and factionalism.

Let’s be very clear about one thing here: conflict by itself is not a problem. Actually it’s a normal part of any group of people. A community without conflict is more than likely a community that has given in to apathy. But when conflict causes us to turn away from our purpose as a community, that is when it becomes a problem. As Jesus said, “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” 6

The sign of a truly healthy and authentic church is that it deals with its conflict. No denying that it is there; no sweeping it under the carpet; no suppression of the minority in the name of democracy. This last one is probably the most common in today’s church – it is all too easy to put it to a vote and leave it at that, whilst not really meeting the needs of some people just because they are in the minority.

Finally, having decided upon a course of action – a decision, by the way, no doubt reached through a great deal of prayer – they implemented it. They stood up, presented their plan, and asked the disciples to follow their lead. They were committed to dealing with the issue, and dealing with it quickly – and in this commitment they demonstrated their love for all of those involved. It is this love at the heart of our conflict-resolution that makes the authentic church distinct from any other organisation. Clearly Jesus’ words still rang in their hearts: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”7

What kind of church are we? Do we:

  • Take our problems to the people that can deal with them?
  • Recognise and accept that there is an issue, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away?
  • Follow through and deal with the problem, rather than just endlessly talking about it?

The authentic church focuses on its calling

There is an interesting verse in the middle of this story: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (2). For the record, I don’t think the apostles had anything against waiters and waitresses! When you sat down to a meal in those days, it was the head of the household’s responsibility to distribute the food – a very important and prestigious job.8 Nevertheless, the apostles are quite clear that what they have been called to is even more important – so important, in fact, that they cannot afford to be distracted.

When you go to see a doctor, you want them to be focused on the most important thing first. No point your doctor pouring all their energy into healing your acne if you are dying of liver disease in the meantime. The same is true in the church. In this case, the distribution of food was important… but the ministry of teaching and preaching God’s word was even more important. So the apostles chose to pursue what they had been called to, and to seek others whom God would raise up to meet the practical needs of mouths to feed.

And others were found, men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom (3), men whose passion and gifting combined to allow them to serve in this way. And by stepping up to take responsibility for that, they freed the apostles up to pursue their main calling of prayer and the ministry of the word (4).

That is why we, as a church, employ Sue and Graham: they use their gifts to deal with things that would otherwise prove a distraction to Rod and to Jake. That is why we have wardens and parish councillors; why we have a variety of people leading services and preaching; why we form teams of people to take responsibility for areas of our church life, rather than just relying on Rod and Jake to do it. And by doing so, we free them up to pursue their vital calling to preach and to teach God’s word.

God gives us gifts in order to bless the whole church. Whilst we don’t have time to pursue this now, I encourage you to ponder what gift or gifts he has placed in you and how you can use them to strengthen our church. Even when it looks as though everything is ‘covered’ and under control, speak up anyway; it may be that in exercising your gift, you will free someone else up to exercise gifts in other areas.

Let me make this a little more concrete with an example from my life. Many of you will know that for some years I acted as the webmaster for this church. I enjoyed doing it, but it took up quite a lot of my time, meaning that I was unable to properly devote that time to other important things: my wife, my job, music ministry etc. Then Patty came along and took that role over, and all of a sudden I was able to focus on those other things. And as a result we as a church were strengthened in our ministry. If Patty had sat back and said, “Well, Tim is doing a good job, I don’t need to get involved,” then we would all have missed out: Patty on the opportunity to grow and develop his gift in IT; me in being able to focus on the other priorities in my life; and the church as a whole because less would have been achieved, and we would have been less effective in our overall ministry. So please, even if you are thinking to yourself, “There are so many service leaders or musicians or preachers or scripture teachers or… there’s no need for one more,” or, “I’m not really sure I have that gift anyway”… please talk to someone! You getting involved makes us all stronger!

Once you have identified what your gift and your calling is you will need to develop and grow it, and you also need to guard from being distracted. This is what the apostles were doing. They knew that they were meant to be preaching the gospel and so they could not afford to be distracted by the details of allocating food day by day. Perhaps you have been blessed with one gift, one special gift that God has given you to serve the church with… if so, use it! Perhaps you have been blessed with a number of gifts… my advice to you is to ask God to show you which one he wants you to be focusing on at the moment and use and develop that gift. God may call you to use different gifts over time, but for now focus on the one that he has put in front of you.

To me, this is one of the most powerful signs of an authentic church: church members are enabled and encouraged to use their gifts to strengthen the church. And the result of this is that the church as a whole is better able to focus on its main priority: spreading the gospel.

  • What are you called to? Are you pursuing, developing, growing and protecting that calling? Are you focused on it?
  • Does our church enable and encourage people to use their gifts in Christ’s service?
  • Does our church prioritise sharing the gospel?

The authentic church grows

If you watched any of the election coverage last night, you’ll know that some people love statistics. We count votes, then calculate margins and swings and all kinds of other things that tell us how successful each candidate and party is in getting people on board with their message. The tricky thing with statistics, though, is that they can be very easy to collect, but much harder to interpret. For example, does the fact that Labor had such an overwhelming victory at the polls yesterday mean that the Australian public genuinely approves of their policy? Or were they just sick of the old government, and Labor were the best of a bad lot? We are at risk of the same issues when we start thinking about church growth.

Luke starts and ends this passage with growth: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing… (1) and So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith (7). The word ‘so’ there is important, as it suggests that the word of God spread as a consequence of the story just told. In other words, a church that deals with divisions in a God-honouring and loving way, a church that focuses on its mission, will eventually see growth.

Notice I said ‘eventually’. One of the easiest traps that we can fall into is that of playing numbers games – our church is increasing faster than the church down the road, so we must be a healthier church. Whilst this may be true, it is not necessarily so. For example, if I offered money to people to come to St. John’s, we might see an increase in the number of people showing up on Sundays, but that is not really what I would call growth. Sometimes you might find church numbers dropping off immediately before a huge growth spurt.

Of course, there other kinds of growth that having nothing at all to do with the number of people attending a church, and which are much more difficult to measure than a simple head count can achieve: are church members growing in the way they understand and act out the Christian life?

Growth is a useful indicator in combination with the other marks of authenticity that we have already looked at, but not so useful on its own. It’s very easy to collect statistics, but much harder to interpret them – to ask the difficult questions like “Why is this so?”, “What does it mean?” and “What should we do about it?”

Part of being an authentic church is asking these hard questions.

  • Is our church growing? If so, is it growing for the right reasons?
  • Are members of our church growing into more mature, God-honouring Christians?

The authentic church is full of authentic Christians

So there you have it: the authentic church. Committed to dispatching division; minding its mission; and going for growth. Whilst these are not the only requirements for an authentic church, they are certainly good signs that a church is healthy.

But what is true for a church is also true for a Christian; after all, churches are made up of Christians. How can I expect my church to deal with arguments if I cannot overcome my differences with others? If my mission is out of focus, is it reasonable to expect my church to be focused? How will my church grow unless I am growing?

Take some time and look over your list of problems in the church… do you have stuff you need to deal with first? Are the church’s problems your problems too? You bet they are!

The best sign of an authentic church? It is full of authentic Christians. Are you one of them?


Endnotes

  1. Acts 6:1-7
  2. Mackay, Advance Australia… Where? (Hachette 2007) pp. 176ff.
  3. Ibid. p. 177
  4. Of course, the wedding day is ultimate evidence of “the cult of perfectionism” in full flight: dress, hair, limo, location, video, photos. Mackay quotes the average wedding today as costing more than $30, 000! (Ibid. p. 179)
  5. A good friend of mine, when asked what it would take to keep him at a church he was visiting, responded, “1000 virgins”!
  6. Luke 11:17
  7. John 13:35
  8. cf. Jesus’ role at the Last Supper
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