Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Call Me "Rabbi!"

Jesus said not to use honorific titles--does that apply to "pastor?"

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
Matthew 23:8-10
A few days ago I was asked, but not for the first time, about this passage, and its prohibition on the use of titles like "rabbi" or "teacher" or "father" among the followers of Jesus. Since he spoke this prohibition himself, it certainly ought to be obeyed. So, when we call someone (for example, me) "Pastor," are we disobeying the Lord? And should Christian institutions give up such titles as "Doctor" or "Professor" as being unbiblical?

I'm not going to speak to the educational situation and titles, although the same principles below may apply to them in intentionally Christ-centered organizations. But I've wrestled with this question for myself ever since going into vocational ministry. The passage, for example, tells us we are all brothers (stressing equal standing), but often when we use such titles we create hierarchy among believers. And it's not just basic titles like "pastor," either. We sometimes create other titles that can be used similarly. I know that our previous church association had a "national representative" that wasn't called "President" or "Superintendent" because that seemed too authoritative, and yet even the more cumbersome title was used by many in tones of deference to authority. It's just how people are--we seem to gravitate toward "pecking orders" and titles help establish that process. If you are "assistant" anything, you are under someone else, so we know you have some power, but not the most.

When I was first ordained, I was working as an assistant pastor, was responsible for youth, and was in my early 20's in a church with half its people more than twice my age. They called me "Craig" before and after ordination, and I was happy with that. My work was respected, and I didn't have any trouble being "followed" when teaching or leading.

In my only other senior pastorate, which was a church replant, I kept that practice going, preferring to be known by my name and not a title. This passage had some influence on my thinking, but so did the idea that "pastor" is one of the gifts given to the church according to Ephesians 4:11. Since we don't tend to call most people by their occupation or their spiritual gift ("Plumber Paul" or "Helpful Henry"), I was happy to be just plain Craig.

Later, some parents said they didn't want their children calling me by my first name but to show some respect to me as an adult with a title. I suggested that "Pastor Craig" might be a good option, as long as "Pastor" was seen more as an honorific like "Uncle"--and that thought came from my visits to mission fields, where all the kids of missionaries called all the missionary adults and visiting pastors and wives "uncle" or "aunt."

I suggested the same ideas when I came here, but because this is a long established church, what people call me is all over the map. For some, I am "Craig," for others "Pastor Craig," and others use "Pastor Miller." Some address me simply as "Pastor." Some of you may have other names for me, but I don't need to hear them! :)

But is the use of such titles as "Pastor" or "Reverend" wrong? At first look, this passage would seem to say, "yes." Jesus wanted his followers to see themselves on equal footing, all learning and following one true authoritative teacher--himself as the Messiah.

But if we think about the context and history, we may be a little less certain. In the days of Jesus, religious Jews were sharply divided into various camps. We know about Sadducees (mainly priestly families who denied much of what we would consider basic spiritual truths in favor of an ethical, non-supernatural emphasis on the Temple observances) and the Pharisees (teachers of the Law who were zealous for obedience to the Law and strong believers in the supernatural). But Pharisees divided into lots of different, competing groups, following particular rabbis and traditions. These groups often viewed other such groups as being in error. Thus people allied themselves with their own rabbis and these groups were often at odds over who was right. And their "rabbis" were all too happy to have such followers, who would treat them with great honor and deference. They would call them "father," too, and often such men conducted themselves with a great sense of their own importance. When they were crossed, they had very little hesitation about putting the one who disagreed in his place. Your rabbi was not just a teacher you liked--he was an authority you deferred to and obeyed, and who often required his followers to show appropriate respect and obedience.

Jesus is rebuking the idea that any man (or woman) should be viewed as  the authoritative teacher on the truth of God on earth, and by extension that any person should take such authority to himself, with one clear exception. It was Jesus alone to whom believers were to look as their authoritative teacher/explainer of truth, and Jesus who was to receive that kind of honor and obedience.

Interestingly, Jesus told his disciples that in his kingom they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so he wasn't saying there would be no authority exercised on his behalf among his followers. The apostles clearly understood that Jesus, by his authority was commanding them to go, teach, and baptize people--having already told them that they could "bind" or "loose" things on earth with heavenly power. So it isn't just authority that is in view here.

Rather, it is the exercise of control by a spiritual leader as if he is the ultimate word on all matters of faith. It is self-promotion and self-aggradizement that is in view here--wanting not just the title, but power and respect from others.

So, I believe that using a title like "pastor" need not be considered wrong, as long as the person using it or being called by it is simply acknowledging God's call to fill this role for the benefit of the church. I've had some people say they see the title as showing respect for the calling or "office" of pastor. What must be avoided is the idea that there is, inherent in the person referred to by the title, an authority and power that should only belong to Christ. And pastors need to recognize that their only authority and power comes as they speak what the Word says and apply it as Christ directs. If the "Pastor" is the big shot and everyone else is expected to follow without question, then we are back in the very circumstance that Jesus was rebuking.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The God Who Sings

Of all our conceptions of God, we may miss this one

God reveals himself to us in manifold ways. The creation reveals his power and his order--including the moral order (remember Romans 1). All people, even unbelievers, see this, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Jesus came as the express, physical representation of God, being himself fully God, now in human form. This is affirmed in many places in Scripture, including John 1.

The Scriptures are replete with imagery of God that speaks to us of who he is and what he does. He is enthroned above the heavens (Psalm 123:1). He is a righteous judge, who isn't always happy with what he sees (Psalm 7:11). He is "our Father" who gives grace and peace (Matthew 6:9, Ephesians 1:2). He is "great, mighty, and awesome" (Nehemiah 9:32). Time doesn't permit me to survey all the different ways the Bible encourages us to see and understand God--maybe you could take some time later and just begin to recount them all.

But there is one image, one concept, that I came across today (not for the first time), and it blessed me, and I want to share it with you. It is from Zephaniah 3:17--a passage (and a book) you probably haven't been working in recently. Here is what it says: 
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. 

In a prophetic vision of God's judgment and then restoration of Israel as his people in the "Day of the Lord," we find this imagery in the midst of God's comfort and assurances to people. God says to those he has redeemed and rescued in that final day, that in his joy over them, he will break into loud singing.

That is a picture I don't often conjure up when I think of God. I think of God as serious--even in his happiness. I don't know why, but most of my thoughts of God don't consider him so moved with joy, especially over people, that he starts singing--loudly. That sounds too--enthusiastic! But there it is. He says is "in your midst," "mighty," "will save," "rejoices" gladly over his people, quiets them with his love, and exults with "loud singing."

God takes joy in his redemptive work, accomplished through his Son. We are a part of that redeemed people. And that means, by extension, his joy in us and our promised future is the same. The eternal God, not bound by time and not just seeing us now but seeing us as we will be through the work of Christ forever, sings over us. He sings over me, and if you are his child--he sings over you, too.

Take a moment and just revel in that thought. The great God of the universe looks at us, and joyfully belts out a tune of celebration. My old joke that life isn't a musical isn't really true after all. I wonder what the lyrics will be? We can only picture it now, but one day, we'll hear it and experience it. The Father's joy will be full as he brings all the redeemed into his presence. What a picture to hold on to when you wonder what God thinks about you as his child. Let it encourage you today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Which Bible?

Choosing one may raise some questions--let me help!

Recently one of our members asked me to comment on various versions of the Bible and what I recommend and why. This multi-part question was so good, I decided to write here about it, because there are some great options out there for you to consider, as well as a few matters to be aware of as you make a choice.

First, I know you have probably figured out that I use the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible in my preaching and teaching. But that doesn't mean it is the only "good" Bible translation out there. You also know that I grew up on and still remember much of the King James Version. While I honor its powerful role in English speaking Christianity (and frankly in the English language), I do not recommend it to those who haven't used it regularly, and would humbly suggest that advances in our understanding of the original texts have allowed other versions to be even more beneficial. And while I consider it a good version, the New King James Version (not so new anymore) did not take advantage of some of the advances in our knowledge but sought to remain close to the KJV.

As you consider a Bible, you should know that you will be well served by any of the following versions, but I will weigh in on the pros and cons of each. As I do, I will comment on how literal the version is, and how readable it is as well. Often "the more readable, the less literal" can apply, because trying to be literal in translation often means having to put things in English in a way we would not say them in most conversation. Translators struggle with the question of trying to accurately convey the meaning of words, phrases, ideas, and "figures of speech" from the original language to ours, and that is a daunting task--especially if you are trying to make sure to communicate accurately what God wants his people to know.

So, with great respect for those who have done the work, here are my recommendations. I am only commenting on versions that are currently readily available and fairly widely used, with one possible exception.

Very "literal" Bibles:
  • The New American Standard Version. This has been recognized generally as the most literal English translation. Because of that, it takes more effort to sit and read than other Bibles, but it is very reliable in its rendering of the original language into English in a word for word style translation. By having "American" in its name, this version guaranteed a limited interest among international English speakers, and it has lagged behind the ESV, NKJV, and NIV in popularity. This was the first translation I used other than the KJV, and for many years it was the "go to" translation in conservative churches if you were leaving the KJV behind. I preached from it for years. It is excellent for study, but not the best to give to a young or new Bible student who is not a strong reader.
  • The English Standard Version--Nearly as literal as the NASB, the ESV made readability a goal as well, but also tried to keep some of the poetic feel of the King James and the Revised Standard Version--an older version that was used as its basis. It has become the most popular among the more literal translations--it is John Piper's and Wayne Grudem's favorite! It would be in the top two of my recommendations in almost every case.
  • The Christian Standard Version--this is a new release, replacing the Holman Christian Standard Bible, released by the publishing ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a very good, literal translation. I've taken some time to read it, and I find it very good in the sections I've covered. However, it is hard to see what the need for it was, and whether it will gain popularity and staying power (it does have a major publisher and denomination behind it, so that helps). In my opinion, the one great step that the HCSB had made was to use the name of God in the Old Testament where the original text used it. They rendered it "Yahweh." However, the CSV has removed it, going with "LORD" in caps as other English versions do, which makes it even less "unique" as a version. But it is still a good option.
  • The NET Bible--This is the exception I mentioned above, a version that most of you have never heard of. I include it because of its unique helpfulness in giving the English reader access to understanding matters behind the translation. It has LOTS of notes explaining the original language and why a particular translation was chosen--they are the most extensive language notes of any English Bible of which I am aware. If you would like this tool for free, you can download "Lumina" from the app store on your phone and you will get the translation and all of the notes! There are print versions, too. Chris Miller uses this version and highly endorses it--that's another reason I include it. The downside: if it is your regular version, then you will never be reading what everyone else is reading.

Very "readable" Bibles:
  • The New International Version--This is the most popular modern translation of the Bible into English--I think the KJV still is #1worldwide. The NIV is less literal, but still very accurate as it seeks to give more of the ideas than just the words. Sometimes this is called a "dynamic equivalence" method of translation, but what is meant is that instead of translating word for word, the translators tried to give the meaning of each phrase, and if you had to be less "literal" with a word, that was acceptable to be able to get the basic meaning of the phrase or verse across. The most "controversial" point for this translation in its most recent revision is that they have adopted the contemporary usage of plural pronouns to avoid saying "he" or "him" when that is what the original language says in reference to an individual person. They sometimes turn a verse from a singular like "Blessed is the man..." to "Blessed are those..." so as not to imply gender. Frankly, I don't like that approach, but it's not enough for me to keep from making this the other Bible in my "top two." Tim Keller and D.A. Carson both use and recommend this version.
  • The New Living Translation--This translation is even more of a "translate the idea" rather than "translate each word" version, and does the same thing as the NIV with changing singular to plural references to avoid gender. I find that it gives me quite a different perspective when I read it, which often makes me go back to the original languages to discover how they got to the translation they did. I have great respect for those who worked on it, and find it helpful. But it is not the best version to use if you want to carefully study the meaning of the text. 
Some of you might be saying, "but what about 'The Message?'" This is Eugene Peterson's personal translation/paraphrase into English, and it is a very enjoyable read. Peterson often picks up on aspects of the meaning of words and phrases that are helpful, and as a writer his turn of a phrase can be powerful. But there is imprecision and sometimes doctrinal bias that keep this from being worthy of consideration as a main Bible, in my view.

The two versions I've recommended--the ESV and the NIV--both have excellent study Bibles available. The ESV actually has two I appreciate, The ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Bible. The NIV has the excellent Zondervan NIV Study Bible. The first and last have very extensive notes on almost everything. The GTB's focus is what its name implies--seeing the Gospel throughout the Scriptures. 
I hope this is helpful if you are considering a new Bible for yourself or someone else. And one more personal preference I have is looking for a good quality Bible--one with a binding that will last.