Equipping the Saints: Leaders, Doers, and Community


This will be my final post in the Equipping the Saints series. I could probably write on Christian Education issues forever, but I have other things to say, so I’m going to wrap this up for now.

Strangely, one of the things I’ve been accused of during this series is failing to talk about educating Christians outside of mere Bible knowledge. Obviously, that accusation must come from people who don’t regularly read this blog. As I see it, I mostly write about Church issues that have little to do with teaching the Bible and everything to do with the practice of the faith. Cerulean Sanctum exists to talk about how we Christians can more effectively live out the faith in a practical way.

And that’s what today’s post is about.

I find this to be one of the most telling verses in the Bible:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
—Judges 17:6

What makes this verse even more intriguing is that it is duplicated later in Judges 21:25. You don’t see that too often in the Scriptures. The writer of Judges certainly has a point to make!

I’ve heard the latter portion of that verse quoted slightly out of context by teachers attempting to make a point about sin. Well, I can see that a little, but the modifier for that second sentence comes from the one that precedes it.

Israel, in the era of the judges, lacked consistent leadership. The nation had no direction. We see why here:

Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
—1 Samuel 3:1

And we see the outcome of that lack here:

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.
—Proverbs 29:18

Without visionary leadership plugged into what God is doing, a church simply cannot grow its people deeper in Christ. The success or failure of most churches rests on their leadership.

This is not to say that an anointed leader can’t be done in by external forces, such as church squabbles and other leaders seeking glory for themselves. But whether or not a church makes genuinely deep disciples who know Christ and minister Him through the power of the Gospel and the gifts of the Spirit rests largely on the leadership and its vision.

It worked for Jesus:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.
—John 5:19

Jesus connected with the Father and grabbed the vision. So if Jesus is our model, how then can we excuse ourselves from imitating His lead of only doing what He sees the Father doing??

Yet how many leaders know the doings of God? They might know what they are doing, but if that doesn’t align with God’s direction, forget it; the whole enterprise will fail. (Or it might succeed ever so slightly in the flesh so that it becomes a norm that people equate with success, which results in a lowest common denominator measure of future successes that bears no resemblance to what God can make happen.)

This lack of leadership clued into God’s intent defines the state of Evangelicalism in the 21st century. But without God-directed leadership, making disciples will forever be a hit or miss proposition.

It simply doesn’t have to be that way.

As for the people in the seats, their role is doing. We assume leaders are doers, but are their charges?

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
—James 1:22

We can teach the Bible until we drop dead of exhaustion, but it will be for naught if the people who receive it do nothing with it. The Bible isn’t meant to exist in a vacuum, but some people make it so. I know in some parts of Evangelicalism, people treat the Bible like a Bible Bowl contest and even award kids for how much they know. Honestly, that’s worthless unless it’s paired with actually living what the Bible says.

One of the most abused verses in the Bible:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
—2 Timothy 3:16-17

I think it’s abused because many Christians will go on and on about how Scripture is God’s word and we should know it, but they then neglect the purpose of God for knowing it: good works.

Folks, that’s the end goal of knowledge of the Bible. Everything you and I read in the Bible is intended to equip us to be doers. That’s why James’ admonition is so powerful. Absorbing Bible teaching after Bible teaching yet doing nothing with that teaching is wicked! It’s a lie we tell ourselves about our maturity, because we base that maturity solely on what we know, not on what we do because of what we know.

I am perpetually amazed by the martyr Stephen. Here he was whip smart in the Scriptures and filled with the Holy Spirit, yet his job ensured the people forgotten by the rest of his culture were waited on at table. And he didn’t discharge that waiting to some lesser; he did it himself.

In our day, we would call that a waste. But Stephen didn’t think so. Nor did the apostles who chose him for that role. All had caught the greater vision of knowing the Scriptures. And when time came for Stephen to die by the hands of those who hated him for what he practiced, what he knew came out in full force. So that even as he was dying, he was doing the work of an apologist and evangelist.

Doing ensures learning. Tell me something and I might retain some general knowledge. But let me do based on what I have learned, and I will grow deeper. That’s how it works. God intends for us to do what we know so that we put down spiritual roots and can take on even more responsibility in learning and doing.

Do we want revelation by the Holy Spirit in our lives? Rather than trying to snatch mystical revelations out of thin air, why not just do what the revelation of the Scriptures has already told us to do? How can anyone expect to hear the Holy Spirit speaks some charismatic revelation if that person fails to do what the in-hand revelation of the Holy Bible has already said to do?

Feed the poor. Visit the sick and dying. Minister grace to the prisoner. Share Christ with others. I can guarantee that if we do those things the Lord commanded in the Scriptures we will understand what the Bible means in a greater way. Doing is its own learning. It’s the on-the-job training that takes everything we know already from the Bible and sets the Spirit’s fire to it, making it real in the life of the believer. You and I simply cannot grow to understand the Bible, grow in grace, grow in knowledge of the voice of the Lord, and grow in spiritual giftings unless we do the things God has already taught us to do.

Leaders must lead based on the vision they have received from God. The congregation must know the Bible and do what it says to do.

The last piece of this is to blend it together in community. The more mature folks work alongside the less mature, helping them to see through service what it means to put the word of God into practice. Mentoring isn’t then reduced to a 1:1 relationship that only comes about through much wrangling, but it defines how the community lifeblood of the church flows, as it should always occur on a community scale. When the community of the local church then catches the vision of God given through the leadership, Christian Education finds its fulfillment. Great things happen. People grow deep in Christ. The local church blooms and prospers, as does the greater Church Universal.

So many times this ideal fails because we fail to understand that it must and always be a process that depends on everyone doing his or her part. Leaders must draw close to God enough to see what He is doing. The congregants must be willing to put what they learn in the Bible into practice. And the greater community, both leaders and nonleaders, must be working together toward a common goal.

We can have such a practice in our churches if we wished to. But I believe that too few of us do. Satisfied with a snack, we miss the feast. And worse, we come to believe that the snack is all there is.

Equipping the Saints: How to Have a Sweet Hermeneutic


The Bible, old school style...Apologies for being away for more than a week. Thanks for being a reader and for hanging in there through blog hacks and workloads.

As we start winding down this look at equipping the saints, let’s talk about hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is NOT the fan club of the father on The Munsters. It’s the theory behind how to properly interpret. While the word hermeneutic may be associated with other fields of study, it gets its workout in the field of interpreting the Bible. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, biblical hermeneutics.

If you’ve been a Christian long enough, you’ve encountered both good and bad biblical hermeneutics. The classic example of bad hermeneutics is the fellow who decides he wishes to hear from God and chooses as his oracle to let his Bible flop open, followed by him blindly dropping a finger on the open page. The first verse that comes up is Matthew 27:5, wherein Judas hanged himself. Unnerved, the guy lets his Bible flop and ends up on Luke 10:37, where Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” In a near panic, the guy tries one last time and comes up with John 13:27, which admonished, “Whatever you are going to do, do quickly.”

We laugh, but I’m certain each of us has encountered this kind of application and  interpretation of the Bible, not just by those new to the Faith but also by teachers, pastors, preachers, and leaders who should know better.

If we are going to truly equip a generation to be strong in the knowledge of the Bible, we have to have a solid biblical hermeneutic.

Here are my top ten suggestions on how to interpret the Bible properly:

1. Always ask the Holy Spirit to be your guide. One of the reasons the Holy Spirit was given by God is to help us understand God’s words to us. If we ask God for His Spirit’s guidance in understanding the Bible, He will be faithful to provide it. Not enough of us make this plea, and it is one reason why we have so many weird Bible interpretations out there.

2. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. The Bible is a coherent whole. God is wise enough to know how it comes together, so He can help us see that unity. If we come to the Bible with an agenda or with the latest nonfiction title from Oprah’s book club in our other hand, we’re going to let those doing the interpreting for us. So many people fall down at this stage that I would advise “Let the Bible interpret the Bible” be stamped in large letters on every Bible printed.

3. The Bible has two distinct testaments, Old and New—and that’s for a very good reason! Whenever New Testament Christians begin to read the Bible through Old Testament lenses rather than New, error crouches at the door. It boggles my mind how many Christians attempt to resurrect Old Testament practices and make them “new,” even though those old practices were fulfilled in Christ. More often than not, the Church suffers for this, as people attempt to live by the Law and not by the Gospel of Grace. If I had my way, every new Christian would spend a full year in study of the New Testament book of Galatians before ever being allowed to read one page out of the Old Testament. Whenever I hear a teaching meant for the Church today and it spends the vast majority of its time in the Old Testament, the flags go up. Be very careful on this, as confusing the Testaments makes for deadly cases of damnable legalism. This is not to say that the Old Testament does not speak to modern Christians, only that what it says must be interpreted through the reality of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God as revealed through Jesus.

4. Thou shalt not build entire systematic theologies on a single verse. If God really wants to command us to do something or show us how to live, He’s going to do so more than once. Some of the wackiest things Christians do comes from some leader’s weird interpretation of a single verse, usually taken out of…

5. Context, context, context! When verses are taken out of their full context, they can be made to say anything. Witness again the poor fool with the floppy Bible and errant finger. Context is king! I recent had the displeasure to hear someone talking about Jesus’ sole “command to tithe” in Matthew 23:23, as it seems that Jesus is praising the Pharisees for tithing their spices. That this passage occurs within a litany of condemnations Jesus calls down on the heads of those same Pharisees, the poster children for doing it wrong and missing the real heart of the Lord, should give us pause. Context begins with the whole of Scripture and trickles down through the testaments, the books, the chapters, and the scenes (but never to the verses alone). I would even offer that for some books of the Bible context should never go lower than the whole book. The epistles (letters of Paul and other writers) of the New Testament are meant to be read in their entirety and should be understood in that larger context.

6. Beware of numbers. I don’t mean the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, but any teaching that makes enormous use of the numbers of the Bible. Some of the worst theology, especially related to end times predictions, has been concocted by people attempting to string together numbers in the Bible. For instance, I have heard numerous teachings over the years on the “number of completion in the Bible,” with the only problem being that each teacher chose a different number: 3, 7, 10, 12, 40, 100, 1,000, and 144,000.  Such exercises are more likely manmade than God-inspired, as tossing around numbers is a sure way for a “Bible expert” to appear “deep.” Numbers are what they are, and attempts to read too much into them can lead to some seriously goofy teachings, especially when trying to make them say something within a teaching agenda. (A glaring exception to this is the Trinity, but even then, I would be wary of always associating anything with the number 3 back to God. I mean, Paul asked God three times to take away his thorn, but I don’t think I’d carve in stone that he was addressing a different person in the Trinity each time!)

7. While the Bible is timeless, culture is not. This can be a fine line for people and creates the most arguments as to WHAT GOD REALLY INTENDS™. For the serious Bible student (which, honestly, should be every Christian!), it pays to understand the cultural context of the times in which the Bible was written. When God says he doesn’t want trees near His altars (Deut. 16:21-22, and elsewhere), it pays to understand why, especially if we wish to see if that reasoning is based in culture. When Paul tells the Corinthians that women should always wear a head covering when praying and prophesying, is His admonition culturally mandated or not? Why? (Evidently, we think it is a product of the times, since rarely do I see today’s women covering their hair in church as commanded by Paul.)  Be very careful, though, to avoid confusing timeless truths with cultural ones, as that confusion is often used by moral relativists to justify all manner of sin. Such sins as lying, pride, and sexual perversion are always wrong, no matter the cultural context, and the Bible will always bear this out.

8. No matter who a Bible teacher might be, always be discerning. Paul praised the Bereans for not taking him strictly on his word, factchecking him against the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11). That kind of healthy skepticism is missing in the lives of too many Christians, as millions readily fail to check if what they are hearing is really true. Honestly, in my own life, I start with the assumption that what I am hearing is suspect until proven otherwise by the dual testimony of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of the Scruptures, and that reasoning has not failed me in nearly 35 years of walking with the Lord.

9. Use multiple translations of the Bible when examining passages, especially ones that are not immediately clear. Some Bible companies offer parallel Bibles that include multiple versions/translations side by side for comparison. Chronological bibles are fascinating tools to help readers see how books like the Psalms or Jeremiah fall into the context of books like Kings or Chronicles. The Amplified Bible is an interesting attempt to expand the meaning of certain Hebrew and Greek words and phrases (though I would NOT recommend it as an everyday reading Bible), which can help illuminate the text. I believe that English-speakers will be well off with a literal translation (such as King James, New American Standard, or English Standard versions), a dynamic equivalency (which tries for literal phrasing, if not word for word—the New International Version is fine), and a paraphrase (such as the New Living Translation or the NT-only New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips).

10. Don’t just read the Bible, study it! And use good reference books, too. A devotional reading of the Bible will not help us understand it fully. Such a technique may help us find comfort in its words, but there is much that lies below the surface, and it pays to root out the deeper truths. Many good reference books exist (I use a bunch of old, dusty ones that are no longer in print, but excellent contemporary helps are available), so do a little comparative shopping and talk with people whose spiritual lives you wish to emulate. I’m sure they can recommend books that can help them. (One newer book I recommend on this topic of proper hermeneutics is How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.) Every student of the Bible should have a good concordance (for looking up words in verses), Bible dictionary, and Bible commentary (or three) as a means for study.

These ten suggestions do not comprise the whole of good hermeneutical technique, so I would encourage you to delve deeper into the topic of how to properly read and interpret the Bible. With so many bad teachers and preachers out there today, wisdom dictates that being properly equipped demands more of us than simply nodding our heads in unison to whatever some guy with moussed hair, brilliant dentition, and a Brooks Brothers suit tells us to believe.

Finally, why did I choose to label this post “How to Have a Sweet Hermeneutic”? Because when we truly know how to handle God’s word correctly, we’ll enjoy this:

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
—Psalms 119:103

And in the end, isn’t that what every believers truly desires?

Equipping the Saints: Blessed Are the Educated, For They Shall Know God


Seeing the light...For the last month, I’ve been writing about the dire state of education in our Christian churches. People don’t know their Bibles, don’t know what their churches believe, don’t know how their Faith intersects daily living in 21st century America—in short, I will venture to say that the average adult Christian sitting in the pew of an American church today has less understanding of God than the average 10-year-old did 100 years ago.

And that’s pathetic. Whatever Christian education initiatives we’ve been foisting off on the people in the seats aren’t working. And they haven’t been working for a long time.

Truth is, I could write about this issue forever. It might become all I ever talk about here at Cerulean Sanctum. In reality, if you go back over past posts, the emphasis at this blog has always been to understand why so many people in the American Church today feel lackluster in their faith and what we can do about. So perhaps this current series is just a synopsis of six years of writing about discipleship. (I’ll let you read through the archives and draw your own conclusions.)

What follows below are ideas I’m convinced are a right start. They’re haphazard and not fully developed in this post, but I’m convinced that if we started doing these things in our churches, we’d gain the forward momentum we so badly need.

If I had to find one fault with the way we teach people about the Christian Faith, it’s that nothing we say this week reinforces what we said last week. In the same way, education in our churches fails on every level to reinforce what the Christian Church for centuries believes.

Why is it that nearly everything we do educationally within our churches reduces to gossamer that blows away at the slightest breath? How then can we expect people to withstand the gale force winds that exemplify our times?

Is it any wonder that no one evangelizes anymore? We say that what we believe is a matter of heaven or hell, but if we don’t know the basics of those beliefs, why would we want to parade our ignorance before other people?

Our young people who go through years and years of youth group graduate from high school and immediately shipwreck, with (depending on whose figures you read) anywhere from 50 to 85 percent falling away within a few years from the faith they supposedly once held deeply.

Is any of this resonating?

I think it all goes back to reinforcement, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly reiterating what we know and why. This takes the truth of God and packs it down deep into every nook and cranny of the soul. It gives people truth to fall back on because they continually hear it.

Learning is a relentless reinforcing that happens on every level of one’s interaction with the world. And we Christians can either reinforce the Kingdom of God in each other, or we can let the kingdom of the world plant its payload of corruption in our very hearts 24/7/365.

One of those kingdoms will win in the end, and I prefer it be God’s.

What follows is my take on just that kind of reinforcement as it plays out in a hypothetical church that I call Faith Fellowship.

When you walk into Faith Fellowship for the first time, on the left wall of the lobby is a massive poster that lists the 10 key beliefs of the church. On the right wall hangs the huge poster containing the corresponding 10 ways the church lives out those beliefs in practical daily discipleship.

The leadership of Faith sought the Lord concerning these 20 total statements,  and every member of Faith had some say in their creation. Together, the people of Faith seek God to help them live out these 10 beliefs and 10 discipleship statements. Their shared statements are core to the purpose and heart of the church, reflected in every piece of the educational program.

You simply cannot miss those posters when you walk in. In addition, the pastor of Faith preaches twice yearly on the purposes of the church as espoused in the beliefs and discipleship statements, and the statements are taught age-appropriately at all levels within the educational system at Faith.

Because of Faith Fellowship’s conviction that education is critical to presenting men and women mature in Christ, the church has both adult and child Sunday School programs. In addition, it is assumed that additional educational opportunities will exist through small groups, formal midweek classes, and outreach opportunities that put what was learned into practice.

Faith Fellowship maintains at least one year-round Bible overview course that teaches a Christian worldview based on creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In addition, a “jump in at any time” class covers the major themes of each book of the Bible, with a systematic chapter by chapter walkthrough. These classes are taught by those in church leadership who have shown themselves adept at handling the Bible. A course on how to read the Bible and correctly study it is also ongoing.

Because Faith believes that truth must be reinforced, the Christian education department at the church constructed a church-year curriculum in conjunction with pastors and preachers that teaches the same message age-appropriately through the sermon, midweek teachings, and all Sunday school classes.

How this works at Faith Fellowship is that the morning message delivered in the service may be on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Sunday School classes that follow the service offer a further unpacking of that parable’s message. The preacher is made available to interact with adult Sunday School attendees to field questions and to work with teachers to make sure the parable is grasped.

In addition, the children’s Sunday School classes also discuss the Good Samaritan, ensuring that parents and children have been taught the same material. This allows families to further discuss the teaching during the week (rather than putting parents in the weak position of having to dredge out of their kids “what they learned in church today.”)

Faith also believes that families should worship together regularly, so the children  stay for the entire service on the first Sunday of the month. At these times, they receive a children’s sermon geared for their understanding that reinforces the preacher’s message.

The teaching cycle at Faith allows for a mix of straight Bible book/chapter/verse exposition and also topical messages. The leadership believes that a methodical teaching through the Bible is essential to grasp the entirety of the Bible’s message, while also understanding that topical series are necessary from time to time to address specific issues of the day. Faith believes that an either/or approach, as other churches often justify, only weakens overall understanding.

Also, because the leadership at Faith affirms the leading of the Spirit, cycles may be disrupted when the Spirit puts a particular message on a preaching/teaching leader’s heart. In those cases, Sunday School leaders may elect to follow the leading or substitute any of several general lessons that would apply at any time in the teaching cycle.

Unlike some churches, the youth ministry program at Faith Fellowship maintains a teaching cycle consistent with the overall teaching cycle of the church. Faith’s leaders also recognize the true purpose of the youth pastor (and children’s Sunday school leadership) must be to instruct parents in how to teach their own children the truths of the Christian faith.  (This goal is assisted by the teaching cycle of the church, asit constantly reinforces the message age-appropriately, ensuring parents are more likely to know how to answer children’s questions on what they learned that week in church because the parent’s themselves received the same teaching, albeit at a more challenging level.) The youth pastor and children’s Sunday School leadership offer classes for parents on how to become better teachers within the home, and they work alongside those households missing a parent by offering supplemental help through a volunteer program that enlists others to help teach with the single parent.

The youth ministry program at the church also includes a catechism and/or “rite of passage” program that works to ensure core doctrines of the church (especially those reflected in the 10 beliefs and 10 discipleship statements) are both understood and lived in measurable ways that qualify youth to be full-fledged members of the adult congregation. Upon completing the catechism, youth are directed into adult responsibilities within the church as fitting to their identified spiritual gifts, but only after successfully passing the program to the satisfaction of church leadership.

The most controversial aspect of Faith Fellowship’s educational program is that it understands that church discipline is essential to ensuring the growth of people in the church. Full membership in the church requires that a set of educational standards be met and upheld by each prospective member. Growth isn’t a recommendation but the sign of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the believer. For this reason, the leadership will work in any way possible with those who fail to meet agreed-upon educational standards of the church. And even in those cases when no agreement can be found, the leadership of the church will work within the situation to help find a less demanding church that may be better suited for the individual. The leadership of the church doesn’t flinch from the reality that many are called, but few are chosen.

Faith Fellowship has many other aspects to its educational program. The people of Faith have refined these teaching standards to a place where people within the church grow and mature according to the Scriptures and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It’s a successful direction that has made Faith a force for the Kingdom of God for the last 20 years.

I believe such a church as Faith Fellowship is possible—but only if you and I are serious about discipleship. As I noted, I’ve left much out of this discussion of this hypothetical church, but the fact remains: We Christians have got to start someplace, and I believe this is a good start, especially when coupled with the ideas I presented in a previous post in this series, “Equipping the Saints: What We Must Expect…and When.”

I won’t sit here and claim that implementing an educational system like Faith Fellowship’s would be easy. It wouldn’t be. It would require everyone put down his or her own agenda and focus on what matters. It demands a lot from the leadership and the people running the educational program. It demands a lot from the people in the seats. It’s not easy. But then again, growth isn’t easy.

Look, we can play at church for the rest of our lives and remain dabblers who don’t know what we’re talking about. Or we can grow up and leave infancy behind us.

The choice is ours. Now who out there is bold enough to start getting serious about discipleship?