One of the great cathedrals in Milan, Italy, has a beautiful triple-door entrance. All three portals are crowned by splendid arches artistically carved with thought-provoking inscriptions. Over one, etched in stone, is a wreath of roses with the words: "All which pleases is but for a moment." Over another is sculpted the outline of a cross accompanied by this engraving: "All which troubles is but for a moment." On the largest doorway - the great central entrance to the main sanctuary - is chiseled the most impressive thought of all: "That only is important which is eternal."
Learning to live able to distinguish between these three options is the key to the Christian life. It is a hard puzzle to decipher that which is a passing pleasure, a trial for a time from that which is truly eternal. Knowing how to order our lives, how to live in light of the commands of Gods Law and the grace of the Gospel is not an easy task. It calls for wisdom which God supplies in His Word and which the Holy Spirit applies to our everyday life.
As we have seen, the second half of Pauls letter to the Ephesians applies the theological truths set out in the first half. For the past few weeks we looked at the practical aspects of sanctification, of what we are to put off and put on. In Ephesians 5:15 Paul shifts from the putting off / putting on of our Christian growth to how we must walk wisely in light of Christs work for us.
The 16th verse of this passage commands that we make the most of every opportunity. I want to take that seriously, so our examination of this passage will have one particular focus. In light of our election of elders and deacons today following the sermon, I want us to zero in on one verse which providentially is in the passage this morning, verse 21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
First a brief overview
Paul begins with the command to live carefully, literally to walk "akriboos," walk like an acrobat, not lacking wisdom, but as ones who are wise. As a teenager when I would go out of the house, my Dad would say, and still years later says, "Watch your step, Bub!" Growing up in a community where some fifteen thousand people still rely on horses as their primary mode of transportation, those are wise words, but they mean more than that.
Wisdom is to guide our lives. But unfortunately, we live in a world in which thinking through the implications of ones choices is a rare phenomenon. What is more, that world lives in us, too! The fool charges ahead regardless of consequences - a wise man plans his path and inspects his decisions carefully. The fool bases his decisions on feelings, desires, impulses and instincts - the immediate moment. The fool does not consider the cost - characterized by impatience. In contrast - the wise man acts carefully.
We need wisdom to guide our lives so that we know how to use our time, we are to make the most of every opportunity, verse 16 tells us. The KJV has "redeeming the time" since the word used here comes from the market place where a wise shopper knows a good bargain and makes the best purchase. God has given us so much time and we are to use it wisely.
The idea of using our time wisely refers not to learning good time management skills, for that Paul would have used the word "chronos" to speak of the space of time. Rather, Paul employs "kairos" to describe the idea of God-given opportunities. The Latin phrase made familiar in Dead Poets Society captures the sentiment: "Carpe Diem...Seize the Day!" Well look more at this next week.
In light of the need to be wise in how we live, Paul continues the contrast with between the fool and the sage in verse 17, rather than being foolish, wisdom is found in knowing Gods will. The word for "foolish" in verse 17 is not the same as "unwise" in verse 15. There it is one who lacks discretion, but the "fool" is the stupid person, the one who is uninformed. You know the type:
What is the solution? Knowing Gods will.
Our lives are to be directed with the wise counsel from what God has already revealed. This is where our only foundation is to be found. We do not need some mystical experience or revelation; rather it is God the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word. Now this is more than just memorizing a few verses and reading a passage now and then and shutting the book. The "understanding" here refers to the gaining of insight, having perception, so that it is the process by which we apply the truths of the Bible to our everyday life.
In the following verses Paul describes what it means to understand the Lords will, how to walk carefully, how to be wise and make the most of every opportunity. We could summarize the topics as dealing with "wine, women and song." Next week well look at the prohibition against drunkenness and the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit and how that is evidenced not by debauchery, but by praising God. But in light of the congregational meeting this morning to elect elders and deacons, well look at the transitional verse, verse 21, which commands us to submit to one another and apply that to a biblical overview of church leaders. We need to be wise in how we view Church authority because the people foolishly adopt unbiblical views and suffer the consequences.
We must understand what it means to submit. This verb helps define the following commands regarding husbands and wives, children and parents, masters and slaves. The trouble is such a word goes against popular psychology, the self-esteem movement, and ideas that preachers and motivational speakers have promoted. It is one thing to be told we must submit to God, but to each other, thats too much!
To submit is to yield my rights to another; it is to look out for the good of another. Literally it is to be placed under another. In this context the verb is combined with the reflexive pronoun. We are to submit to one another. This is as counter cultural now as it was then. We live in a world that is always "me first, my rights, my choice" We value independence from tyranny but do so by running to the greatest tyrant of them all, the worst despot to ever rule: self-rule, that is, autonomy.
This of course is not the only place where such a command is found. In Romans 12:10 Paul says:
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.
And in Philippians 2:3-4, we are to follows the example of Christ when we are told:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
The interdependency we have on one another due to our being united together by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ demands this. This command applies to all, none are left out of its matrix. The great British preacher of the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said of submission:
"It is because the failure to understand and to implement this very teaching is the cause of most of the problems in the world today. The basic problem in the world today is the problem of authority. The chaos in the world is due to the fact that people in every realm of life have lost all respect for authority, whether it be between nations ... whether it be in industry, whether it be in the home, whether it be in schools, or anywhere else!"
Notice the motivation comes not on the basis of the power of the other person or some inherent rights they have based on their position in the world, but the motivation is reverence for Christ.
In light of His glory, because of what He has done for us, securing us to Himself, since He is our head and we are subject to Him, for that reason, we are to likewise serve others. This is at the heart of faith. Do I believe that God is good when He commands this or must I scratch and claw my way to power? Am I going to live demanding my rights or live in light of grace?
Having said that, how do we apply this truth to those who are elected leaders in the church?
Submission to Church Leaders
Submit to leaders because of their accountability - Hebrews 13:17
This passage contains two similar words: "obey" and "submit," but each word increases in intensity.
To obey is to listen, to follow and the passive form here is to be persuaded. The idea is to be convinced by verbal proclamation. There is no inherent right to command, but a willingness to come under the authority of another. The next word, "submit," means to yield, give way, defer to.
The reason for this deference is seen in the scope of their job: "they keep watch over you as men who must give account."
To "keep watch" literally means to "keep oneself awake," as one whos job is to look out for danger. This watchfulness demands a tireless effort, self-discipline, and selfless concern for the safety of others. There is a degree of danger, otherwise there would be nothing to watch out for. The presence of false teachers who can corrupt and sinful corruption which can destroy is the danger and the reason each of us must be under authority.
Listening and following is for the good of the congregation, but also for the good of the leaders, too. Those who are providentially placed in office are accountable to God for what they do and do not do. When leaders of the church fail at their task, the people of the church suffer. Just as James reminds his readers that those who teach will receive more severe judgment because of their influence and responsibility, (James 3:1) so also for those who rule.
There is a benefit to obedience their work will be a joy and it will be good for you.
The word "burden" can also be translated grief, implying a strong emotion unable to be articulated with words. It is the heavy sigh, the longing for relief. Its the sound young mothers make an hour before dad comes home. It is the collective sound at a Session meeting too when we wrestle with issues in the church which take an exacting toll. Tears are shed when lives are in danger, when people live foolishly. There is groaning in sorrow over those who refuse to grow, learn, change or receive correction. On the basis of their responsibility, listen to your leaders.
Submit to leaders because of their work - 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
Paul here commands "respect" but the word is simply "know." But it is not as though they must make an effort to learn their names. Rather, this term implies that those in the church should be aware and considerate of the work of the elders and deacons in the church. Why? Because of their hard work.
The word here for hard work implies a growing weary, a tiredness which comes in the job. The standing joke of course is that pastors work one hour a week, but many of you are aware of the long hours that come with this job. No less for those who are ruling elders and the new deacons who will be elected this morning. On top of the long hours they put into their secular vocation, they are spending evenings examining people for membership, counseling the confused, deciding how Cornerstone can best serve Christ. What does that diligent work look like?
The first word is one which implies leading prohistemi. Notice their sphere of authority in the Lord. The leadership provided is in the realm God has given, based on their union in Christ.
Too often church leadership has fallen to two extremes. The common one today is where leaders only rubber stamp what a pastor wants to do and frankly, nobody really cares what the pastor wants to do. Being an elder or deacon is nothing more than a nice compliment by a church, a title with no authority, like the Queen of England. There is an abdication of authority by leaders who are confronted by individualism, so cowardly officers refuse to exercise biblical oversight entrusted to them by Christ. Equally dangerous is the tendency to over react to the laxity and cross the line between the virtue of biblical counsel and guidance into the vice of usurping control over the conscience. When counsel becomes control, control becomes coercion, and coercion becomes tyranny over the conscience. Rather the leader is seen as one who bears the responsibility for the people as given by God.
The second part of this hard work is admonishment, or instruction
This word means to correct improper behavior or attitudes through sound teaching. It refers to speaking to the mind. It is to warn against bad behavior and its consequences and to reprove those who have done wrong. This is not harshness or scolding, but a warning of impending danger if one continues on the same path.
While such a view of leadership may not be popular in our day of personal freedom from all restraints, Scriptures realistic portrayal of our sinfulness and need for instruction and encouragement remains true. Being wise, walking carefully means placing ourselves at the disposal of others, to listen to them and allow them to call us to account when we sin. That is what being part of the body of Christ is all about.
Submission by Church Leaders
Leaders submit by their service 1 Peter 5:1-5
Just as Paul calls for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, so I would be remiss if I did not explain how mutual submission works in the context of church leaders. It could seem that they get all the power and you must do all the sacrificing. But that is not the case as leaders submit through their service.
Peter begins his instruction to elders by identifying with them, as a fellow elder. At first that can sound great. But before any elders get puffed up, remember the context. 1 Peter is about suffering and Peter just finished talking about suffering according to Gods will even when you do what is good and right. Then he refers to himself as an elder who witnessed the sufferings of Christ and awaits the glory to be revealed. The immediate context of being an elder here is suffering. Peter is no armchair theologian; he is well acquainted with suffering and most likely a year after this would be a martyr for Christ. That is what it means to be a fellow elder.
What is the job of the elder? To be a shepherd.
Before you get the idyllic picture in your mind of Precious Moments figurines tending cuddly little lambs, realize that the job of the shepherd was understood to be one of hard work and danger. To shepherd implies putting oneself at risk to ensure the sheep are safe. It does not allow one to rest, but demands diligence, as we saw in Hebrews, always alert and ready to protect others.
Another precaution here is that those who are being cared for do not belong to you. Leaders in the church are taking care of that which is entrusted to them, but does not belong to them. Rather than being diminutive despots, as can often happen in churches, those of you who are leaders are taking care of that which belongs to God.
In light of that, the job can easily become a burden, if you do not have the right perspective.
The work of an elder must flow out of a willingness to serve, a joy of sacrifice. If Peter and his audience would have understood this job to be one of power and prestige, reminding elders to serve willingly would not be necessary. But since the job of a leader in the church is one of sacrifice and suffering, this is critical. Leaders in a church are not conscripted against their will, grudgingly doing it because no one else will, rather being available to serve, putting aside any ulterior motives or compulsions.
The first mentioned is money. We dont pay our ruling elders and deacons to do their work. Teaching elders who devote their life to the church are compensated so that they can be "free of all worldly care and avocation" as our Book of Church Order says.
While that may not be a big temptation, the next warning can be: "not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."
Here is the worst and best leader in one glance. The worst is when leaders become autocratic tyrants. Often having failed outside the church, at least in this realm they can exact control. Such a person has no place in leadership. Peter reiterates what Christ said to the disciples in Matthew 20 when he said that they should not be like the rest of the world, acting like petty gods, extracting obedience through threat and intimidation. Rather than intimidation there must be imitation.
They are to be examples to the flock even as Christ commanded in Matthew 20:26-28:
"Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
This willing service, this sacrificial dedication is to be evidenced in the life of those elected to the office of elder and deacon, whose lives are to be examples of faith and repentance, of seeing others as more important than themselves. The pattern they follow is spelled out for them, as they are shepherds following the chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
That description was used earlier in this letter, in 2:21-25 where the suffering nature of the Christian life is held up as the standard. To be a shepherd is to pay a tremendous price. The example leaders are to give is the example of self-less service, of submitting to the needs of others because of the Cross. The work of Christ on our behalf sets the tone; it structures the why and wherefore of submission. It helps us to see also the means by which we can do this. Submitting to one another will not always be easy; our sin is too great to kid ourselves we can do it in our own strength. So our example of Christ becomes the means by which we can accomplish His commands.