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CALLING – Its Sevenfold Nature and Life-Cycle

I did these teaching notes for the video presentation to the South African Vineyard pastors and leaders retreat, March 2021.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle…”  Paul to the Ephesians 4:1

What is a biblical overview of the nature of calling? Especially in regard to pastors and leaders? Do we live a life worthy of our calling? The one call we all receive to follow Jesus in his Kingdom (Ephesians 4:4)… but also the specific callings (“graces”, Ephesians 4:7,11-16) related to gifts and functions, roles and places of service in Christ’s Body and in God’s world. This paper is what I have come to understand, over the years, as the nature and life-cycle of biblical calling, drawn primarily from Jesus’ life, leadership and ministry. And also from my own experience, as per the invitation to teach on calling. 

The pattern and points below apply to all, though each person’s experience is unique and different. We can learn from the many inspiring examples of calling in scripture (and church history). But don’t be like David trying on Saul’s armour to pursue your calling. Each person must find and do what works for them. In my case, God has worked with specific dates, times and messages. Maybe not the case for you. Either way, we all need the clear conviction of calling.  

General Call:  Salvation and mission.

Jesus’ generic call to everyone: “Come, follow me and I will form you into fishers of people” (Mark 1:17). We follow Jesus in his Kingdom community for the sake of the world. Being born from above with eternal life, we are discipled (spiritually formed) in God’s family to do God’s mission in the earth. I heard Jesus’ call and gave my life to him on Friday evening, 7 June 1968, at First Baptist Church, East London. That is where and when I began to follow and be formed to fish people for Jesus! The rest (below) followed on from that.

Specific Call:  Vocation and service.

The general call informs our specific call in the sense that our worldly occupation (fishing, teaching, doctoring, trading, managing, etc) becomes our Kingdom vocation – where we live God’s reign, doing his will on that piece of earth as it is in heaven. By the age of twelve, Jesus’ consciousness had developed to a deep sense of specific calling: “I must be about my Abba’s business” (Luke 2:46-50). His prayerful study of the Hebrew scriptures and the voice of God’s Spirit in his heart, led him to believe that he was ‘the one’ to proclaim and teach, enact and inaugurate God’s Kingdom. My specific calling was in the early morning of Wednesday 11 November 1970, during my quiet time, while reading a chapter in Isaiah. It was overwhelming. I wept and wept. I knew God had spoken to me! Dare I believe what I heard?   

Confirming the Call:  Affirmation and empowering.

In various ways and at different times God confirms and empowers his specific call, his destiny for us in our role and place of service in the Kingdom. What Jesus dared to believe about his call and destiny in God was confirmed by power encounter at his water baptism: That God was Jesus’ Abba, affirming his identity as his beloved son, empowering his call to lead a new Exodus into God’s Kingdom (Mark 1:9-11). There were also confirmations of the call during his ministry (e.g. Luke 9:28-36). I’ve needed many confirmations, most of which I wrote down, to refer to when needed (as Paul instructed in 1 Timothy 1:18-19). However, the big confirmation (public recognition and release) came on 20 January 1975 when the elders at the Bellville Assembly of God in Cape Town, laid hands on me and sent me as a youth pastor to Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The call ‘unfolded’ a year later with an open door, a further call, to plant a church in the next town. And so began my journey of planting and pastoring.

Contesting the Call:  Testing and warfare.

The devil immediately contested Jesus’ specific call, including the confirmation of identity as ‘Beloved Son’ and empowering for ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus overcame the attack by God’s Word. His calling was contested again and again “at opportune times” throughout his ministry. Satan tried to dissuade and disqualify Jesus from pursuing his destiny – even trying to kill Jesus (Luke 4:28-30, 8:22-25) – culminating in the ultimate test in Gethsemane. Our biggest battles are often toward the end of our lives. The longer we lead and the more we fulfill our call in God, the more Satan attacks. I’ve been through deep dark valleys of the shadow of death – spiritually, psycho-emotionally and physically – that nearly defeated me in God’s call on my life. We can all testify to this. God brought me through as I learnt, like Jesus, to “offer up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the One who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Thus) he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8-9). It’s a real life and death battle, but each test/trial is overcome by deeper levels of surrender in trust of the Father: “Father, not my will, but yours be done”.

Unfolding the Call:  Discernment and obedience.

The nature of vocation is that it unfolds with further calls within the overall calling. If we follow by the obedience of faith in deeper surrender to God’s will, it brings us through to completion in God’s call on our lives. With each step of the unfolding call we contend for our destiny in God, to reach our full potential and maturity in the Kingdom. The gospels show Jesus’ discernment of his unfolding call in different events and places around Palestine, that eventually led to the cross – vindicated in resurrection. I could share many developments and turning points in the unfolding call of God in my life. Some changed me forever, e.g. 12 years working for Kingdom justice and reconciliation, by planting a multiracial church, in Soweto under Apartheid. To know how to discern, and obey, each next step in the unfolding call is really important.

Completing the Call:  Perseverance and finishing well.

Pastors and leaders, the journey of vocation is a long obedience in the same direction. My general call (1968) led to a specific call (1970), resulting in public confirmation and sending (1975). Now, 46 years later – what a journey! I’m currently ‘re-firing’ in the fullness of calling, to end well. I’ve taken Jesus and Paul’s words as companions, often in earnest prayer to persevere and finish well: “Father, the hour has come… I have brought you glory by finishing the work you gave me to do… I am coming to you now” (John 17:1,4,13). Oh that I may complete the work the Father has given me to do! In Paul’s words to Timothy, “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship… discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4:5-8). 

The Legacy of the Call:  Reward and rule.

Do not allow evil, or uncrucified flesh, or unhealed brokenness, disqualify you. Run in such a way to get the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Throw away anything that entangles you, looking at Jesus and the cloud of faithful witnesses who have run the race before us (Hebrews 11 & 12:1-2). We live in their godly legacy. Our calling in this age is training for reigning in the age to come. Fellow leaders, will you run a good race and complete your call? Will you leave a good legacy for future generations, for God’s glory, by the grace Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:10?

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RAISING UP NEW LEADERS

Watch my video presentation of these teaching notes.

Paul to Timothy, lead-pastor in the church at Ephesus, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve from among them (to be with him), whom he designated apostles” (Luke 6:12-13).

Jesus to Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:6-9).

Defining Leaders who Raise up Leaders

In the words of the invitation to me:  “How do we raise up leaders to their full potential, which means laying down your own ego, ambition and personal success.”  That is character leadership.

My definition: Leadership is – and is measured by – not how many people and leaders follow you, but how many leaders of character you raise up to lead with/alongside you, who go even further than you in Kingdom leadership. Good leaders develop new leaders to lead in team with them, and to send them out to exercise leadership in the authority of character integrity.

The leader who lays down her/his own ego, ambition and personal success, in selfless service of other leaders to develop them to their full potential, will raise up leaders who lay down their own ego, ambition and success. This is leading by love, in the Spirit of Jesus. To love is to see and honour people as the very image of God, freeing and coaching them to be true followers of Jesusnot of yourself, of your personality and charisma.

If you don’t lay down your ego, ambition and pursuit of success, you will raise up leaders who serve your ego, ambition, success. Those leaders, in turn, will lead by their own ego, ambition and pursuit of success – you impart who you are, not who you say you are. This is leading by lust, in the spirit of the world. To lust is to see and relate to others as objects of use (even abuse) for your purposes and ego-needs, to achieve your vision and success.  

This is the spirituality of leadership as opposed to the technology of leadership.

Spirituality of Leadership versus Technology of Leadership

The spirituality of leadership is about the formation of love. It is about the “who?” and “why?” questions. Who do we follow? Who leads us? Who forms me as a leader? The truth is: we all lead as we are led in our thinking, believing and behaving, whether we know it or not. We are all formed, for better or worse, by following someone or something. Hopefully, it is godly mentoring of character leadership in our lives. Or who/what leads/mentors you in your life? Tell me to whom or what you consistently give yourself – your attention – and I will tell you the kind of person and leader you are.

Why do we do what we do? Lead the way we lead? Why do we watch this video, read that book, learn from this “leadership expert”, that particular theology? Yes, we make those choices, no one else. Spirituality is about the reasons and motivations of the heart. Who is it all for? Me? For my ego, my success? Or for God’s glory and the genuine empowering good of others? The human heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). We avoid doing the hard heart work of examining our mission, core values, mixed motives and unthought-through reasons for doing what we routinely do. So we default to leading by other dynamics: do what works, what is popular, copy others, cut & paste… we resort to personality, pragmatism, programs, techniques, gimmicks.  

The last sentence is the technology of leadership. It’s about the “what?” and “how to?”. What is leadership? How must I do it? Just tell me what to do and how to do it. Give me the secret: “The 5 Easy Steps to Leadership Success”, “The 4 Keys to Raise up Leaders”. It is ‘push & pull’ to achieve an outcome. Make it happen! Multiply leaders and grow the church! Get the show on the road!

Technology is ‘pragmatic technique’, the functional use of means to an end in ever more efficient ways. It is ‘outcomes-based’ production to achieve and have the ‘things’ we love: personal/church success, respect/admiration, the best ‘product’, the ‘latest thing’, the good life. We end up loving things and using people to get those things. The way of Jesus is to love people and use things. To love others as God’s image and use things God has created (including technology), to serve and empower people for their own good, for God’s purpose for them, not for our purposes.

The (post)modern mind says we can and will resolve all problems through technological innovation and progress to achieve human utopia. Beware, technology is not neutral. It forms us in its own image to the extent we do not critically engage and use it wisely in loving service of others.

Philosophy of Leadership: Raising up Leaders  

The spirituality of leadership is our character formation in Christ’s love and his Kingdom vision and values – and the leadership that flows from that. It determines not only the who and why, but also the what and how. Who do we identify as leaders and potential leaders? Why do we want to mentor them to their full potential? What do we see God doing in them? What kind and style of leadership are we coaching them into? How do we raise them up into leadership with integrity of character? How do we develop their full potential in Christ’s love and his Kingdom vision and values?

By prayerfully answering these questions before God, with the help of other senior leaders, we develop a Kingdom ‘philosophy of leadership’ to build leaders from the bottom up.    

This brings me back to my opening texts. First Paul’s strategic instruction to Timothy with five levels of leadership development: Paul > Timothy > other witnesses > reliable leaders > qualified to teach others. And then Jesus’ leadership process: gathering disciples, prayerfully recruiting leaders from among them to be with him, training them in the word and ways of the Father, and then deploying them in leadership and ministry.  

To conclude. In drawing all this together I make the following observations, based on 46 years of experience in full-time leadership and ministry, planting and pastoring churches.

We need an ever clearer vision of Jesus and his Kingdoman ‘updated’ correct understanding of Kingdom theology. My pursuit of the historical Jesus and his Kingdom mission makes me fall in love with him ever more deeply, fuelling my passion to follow him ever more closely. This is our “first love” as Vineyard, to which we must return (Revelation 2:4-5). Our first love is The Love that was there at first: God’s Love in Jesus, by which we live, love and lead (1 John 4:19).

We need a clear (Kingdom) philosophy of leadership and ministry. What John Wimber called a five-year plan to build from the bottom up. Few pastors (I mean that) take the time to do the heart work of defining their mission and vision, values and priorities, practices, personnel and programs – then implement and keep to it for integrity with God, themselves and the people. Most pastors, therefore, live from hand to mouth, lead from month to month, even week to week without a visionary plan. They change things as “the Lord told me” and chase after the next best thing, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14).

The focus, and the means, of the above two points must be discipleship (apprenticeship). Our Great Co-Mission from/with the Risen King is: “go make disciples” in “all his authority” (Matthew 28:18-19). We can only make apprentices of Jesus and his Kingdom – not of ourselves and our kingdom – to the degree we ourselves are disciples who passionately pursue Christlikeness. And, therefore, we can only raise up leaders of character who reach their full potential to the degree we ourselves are leaders of character, growing into our full potential.

How do we make leaders by making disciples of Jesus? By following Jesus’ model mentioned earlier. What Wimber called the ‘Vineyard mantra’ of IRTDM (below). Leaders commonly fail to do IRTDM. It explains the lack of new leaders, the lack of the next generation of credible leaders of character, and therefore, the lack of genuine church growth.

(I have discussed at length IRTDM and how to develop a Kingdom philosophy of ministry in my book Doing Church. Though it seems widely read, it is not widely implemented. A regular mistruth I find among leaders is, “I’ve read this [or that] book”. Well, if they have, then they haven’t understood it, or they haven’t implemented it. Rather read less, slower and repeatedly, and implement more. Read fewer books by truly godly authors and do what they teach).

Identify:  Prayerfully ask Jesus, Head of the Church, to show you who – which potential (younger) leaders – he is giving you to raise up and develop. Note, they are already disciples who hang around and learn, who function and minister with you.

Recruit:  Go and meet with them individually, present the vision of Jesus to them, inviting and calling them into a relational process of formation and development.

Train:  Teach and equip them into leadership by modelling and “on the job” coaching as they practice ministry and leadership in whatever you give them to do. And also, by more formal learning/training times in course work and other programmatic ways.

Deploy:  At the appropriate time, when “reliable and qualified” (as Paul says), they can be released with the laying on of hands into whatever level of responsibility, in leading whatever ministry for which their calling and gifts are suited.

Monitor:  We watch over them, ‘checking in’ regularly to see how they are doing, to keep coaching and further develop them to their full potential. And then we get them to repeat the process with other potential leaders. So, we ‘grow’ leaders who raise up other leaders.

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SOUL CARE – Especially for Leaders

Watch my video presentation based on these notes.

“They made me keeper of the vineyards, BUT my own vineyard I have not kept…
Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyard which is trying to bloom”  
(Song of Songs 1:6, 2:15)

WHAT  is “Soul Care”?

A modern term with various meanings, mainly describing personal wellbeing and spiritual formation. We define it in Hebrew ‘wholism’, not Greek ‘compartmentalism’. In the Hebrew Bible, soul (nephesh) means YOU, not only your ‘inner self’ compared to your ‘outer body’ and relationships. Nephesh and ruach (spirit) and levav (heart) can be used interchangeably, meaning both the core AND the whole of who you are. ‘Heart’ is more commonly used (and sometimes ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’) for the seat of the mind, the emotions and the will, from which we live; in other words, one’s spiritual formation (moral character) from which all of life flows (Proverbs 4:23). 

Thus, the Shema Israel says God is One, so we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; i.e. with our whole being (Mark 12:29-30). Paul teaches the same wholism – using Greek language and categories – in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: The God of Shalom (wholeness, order, harmony, abundance) sanctify you wholly, in your entire spirit, soul and body. Hence, “soul care” is biblical “self-care”, not in selfishness, in self-serving of our desires and appetites. But in prioritising our ‘shalom’ of healing and growth into wholeness, to love God and neighbour as you love yourself.

As I understand it, biblical godly self-care has three aspects/dimensions that interweave in one journey of life for the glory of God: personal healing, personal growth, spiritual formation.

Healing:  Take responsibility for your unresolved “issues”, wounds, brokenness – to work with them, get help and healing, for your own sake and all those around you.

Growth:  Take responsibility for your personal development in knowledge, in theological training, leadership equipping and life skills.

Spiritual Formation:  Take responsibility for your spirituality – your (trans)formation of moral character to become more Christlike.

The more we prioritize and take time for self-care (in the above sense), the more aware we become of what needs healing and growth and development within us… and therefore, how much we need to become more and more like Jesus. 

WHY  do self-care?

For God’s sake. For your own sake. For the sake of those around you. For the sake of your calling and ministry in God’s Kingdom, among God’s people, for God’s world. If you do well, those around you (tend to) do well. Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:15-16).

Therefore, “Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life(Proverbs 4:23).Your highest priority is to guard your heart. The Hebrew “guard” has two meanings. Negatively, to keep and protect your heart (soul/spirit) from what forms you the wrong way. And positively, to cultivate and nurture it in God and his Word, which forms you the right way – in God’s character. The reason is: your “heart” is the source of your life, physically and metaphorically. We all live from our heart, whether we know it or not. We are all formed one way or another, for better or worse. That is the root character that determines and is seen in the fruit of our attitudes, words and behaviour. This is clearly Jesus’ root–fruit and heart–mouth theology that describes, and helps us to discern and identify essentially good or bad persons (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37, 15:17-20).

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul,
With an odour of jasmine – 
And the wind said, in return for the odour of my jasmine
I’d like all the odour of your roses.
But I said I have no roses –
All the flowers of my garden are dead.
And then the wind said,
Well, I’ll take the withered petals
And the yellow leaves.
And the wind left.
And I wept.
And I said to myself,
“What have you done with the garden
that was entrusted to you?”

(Poem by Antonio Machado)

What have YOU done with the garden of your heart that God entrusted to you? 

Rabbis say that the Garden of Eden (‘Delight’ in Hebrew) is an outward picture of the Garden Temple of the human heart, which God gives to each person. God will hold us accountable for what we have done with it. We are responsible to cultivate God’s garden of our heart. To plant and grow… and yes, to pull up the weeds… as a sacred place of God’s delight. Where God not only meets and walks with us, but actually dwells. And takes pleasure in all its brilliant colours, evocative fragrances, rich textures and soft sounds – the beauty of who we are in his image and likeness.

HOW  do we self-care?

The most important answer I have learnt from my life experience with Jesus, in leadership and ministry, is this: Arrange your life, your months, weeks and days, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace in the easy yoke of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30). How do you do this? 

Jesus’s easy yoke is to take on and live in his life practices. Then you learn to live in/from rest, not from urgency, demand, deadline, ambition, pressure to perform, to succeed. Live the unhurried life by arranging your life – and keep rearranging it whenever intrusions overwhelm – to live in the rhythm of regular withdrawal and engagement. This is the easy yoke of Jesus, seen in his self-care with Father. This conditions us to live in and from God’s rest (Shalom) as Jesus did. He constantly engaged with people and ministry and then withdrew, then re-engaged, and withdrew. At times he even withdrew from doing ministry and healing: “crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16). 

Consider this poem (unknown author):

If you fill your calendar with important appointments
You will have no time for God.
If you fill your spare time with essential reading
You will starve your soul.
If you fill your mind with worry about budgets and offerings
The pains in your chest and ache in your shoulders will betray you.
If you try to conform to the expectations of those around you
You will forever be their slave.
Work a modest day
Then step back and rest.
This will keep you close to God
And well in your soul.

The daily planner reveals volumes about the leader’s character formation, about your spiritual condition, values, priorities, fears, ambitions. It tells you who your bosses are, who your lover is, and how much value and care you place on your soul. Take a long prayerful look at your (daily) calendar. Who are you trying to impress? God? The church? Other leaders? Yourself? As C.S. Lewis observed, if you are overly busy, you are actually lazy! Because you allow others to determine and demand your time, rather than doing your own planned appointments as per your values and priorities. 

Plan and take time for God and yourself, for family and friends, for rest and meditation, for walks to enjoy God’s creation. Then you will be more sensitive to God’s presence and ways, and you will be healthy in your soul. There is much to say about the “how to” of good self-care, but let me simply highlight these five, as part of the unforced rhythms of grace:

Daily devotions:  a planned intentional daily time to be alone with God, in prayer and scripture mediation, listening to God in the silence of your heart (Matthew 6:6, Psalm 1:2-3).

Making margins in your day:  plan gaps between appointments to check where you are at, to refocus on God, to pace yourself… to be present to each moment as a sacrament of grace.

Keeping Sabbath rest:  not in the legalistic Orthodox Jewish way, but taking a day off for yourself and God, for family and friends, for rest and recreation.

Periodic retreats:  planning a whole morning, or a day, once a month, to be out in nature or at a Retreat Centre, alone in solitude with God. And plan to go on a led retreat for a weekend or longer, once or twice a year. Formal led retreats are truly enriching.

Spiritual companionship and guidance:  I recommend two kinds of regular meetings, at least once a month, for accountability and healthy self-care. First, a spiritual companion for mutual disclosure, care and prayer. Second, an older spiritual guide/director, one who is wise in the ways of God and the human soul, for discernment and guidance in your self-care.

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Deeper Reflection: Why Leaders Develop a Double Life as in Ravi Zacharias

INTRODUCTION

Let me clear some things right up front.

This paper is because of the responses to my FaceBook post about the painful revelations of Ravi Zacharias’ double life. And requests for a fuller treatment. Some said, “I’m so devastated and disillusioned by all of this, how do I even begin to think about it?”

This is not to throw stones, condemn, or judge as ‘holier than thou’. Rather to grapple as honestly as we can with what happened. To confess and lament. Listen and learn. Discern and weigh matters. To help us to think through this kind of failure in leadership.   

This is not to explain all that happened. Read the 12 page official investigative report by Miller & Martin PLLC and the open letter response from the International Board of Directors of RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministry). They begin: “It is with shattered hearts that we issue this statement…”, and continue in a contrite spirit, “We are shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions.. we feel a deep need for corporate repentance.” However, this is only after RZIM’s denial from 2017 to 2020, and even alleged concealment and enabling of Ravi’s abuse as David French has laid out.

This is not to go into the details of sexual and spiritual abuse. We have to choose who and what we believe. The corroborating testimony of the victims, with evidence as stated in the report – now accepted, believed and published by RZIM? Or that Ravi was the victim of malicious false accusations and did nothing wrong, as RZIM argued till his death? There is no reasonable doubt why we shouldn’t believe the report and RZIM letter.

Either way, we must ask: how do we respond to (high profile) Christian leaders who are found out – either in their life-time, or after death – to have lived a double life of secret sin? Of predatory abuse that damages people, Christian witness, leadership integrity and public trust. And God’s credibility: we represent God. We live, teach and lead in God’s name. “Let your name be sanctified in the earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).

Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about ‘a fall’, a ‘one night stand’, ‘David’s adultery’, or ‘we all sin, no one’s perfect’. We’re talking about years of sexual and spiritual abuse of women, including a credible accusation of rape. Therefore, what do we say? How do we account for it? Why did it go so wrong? What can we learn from it? What can be done?

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE

I’m shattered, to say the least, along with many, many others. It’s time for sackcloth and ashes. I held Ravi in such high regard. When he died on 19 May 2020, I wrote a tribute on my Facebook page. Steve Baughman, an atheist blogger-lawyer, responded by saying he had researched claims against Ravi of lies and sexual impropriety, which he published in a book in December 2018. Then, on 29 September 2020 Christianity Today reported that the RZIM directors initiated an official investigation into the claims. The findings were released on 10 February 2021. The realisation that it is true is very devastating.

So, my first response is a mix of disbelief and grief. I fall on my face before God in lament and mourning, to confess Ravi’s sins, my sins, leader’s sins, our sins as Christians – as Daniel did in Daniel 9. I cry out for all those who were abused. I cry out for the Zacharias family. Because we are shamed – all of us – by what happened.

My second response is: be clear on the nature of the sin and call it for what it is. The report shows a hidden double life of sexual and spiritual abusive behaviour from 2014 to 2020. And it possibly started years earlier. This is no small thing – it’s huge – with widespread fallout.

Ravi’s international profile, great respect, believed integrity, brilliant mind… then this. I was equally devastated – if not more so due to his life of selfless service – by what we learnt after Jean Vanier’s death. The 11 page summary report by L’Arche International, of Vanier’s predatory sexual and spiritual abuse of six women over decades, is really sickening. There is, equally, no reason to doubt the investigation and findings.

There are other Christian leaders, local and international, that one can name. Again and again high profile leaders are shamefully exposed. That’s on the back of decades of widespread sexual abuse come to light in the Catholic priesthood. Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and their leaders are no better.

We dare not deny, excuse, rationalise or justify it. Nor can we disassociate ourselves from it. What happened is a shame on all who bear the name of Jesus.  We must humbly face and account for it. Learn from it. But first the underlying question…

ARE WE ANY DIFFERENT TO THE WORLD?

Is there any significant moral behavioural difference between atheists and religious people – especially Christians?  Research by psychologist, Will Gervais and team, say the answer is no. They find “the religious congruence fallacy”: there is regular evidential discrepancy between beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. “Studies conducted among American Christians… have found that participants donated more money to charity and even watched less porn on Sundays. However, they compensated on both accounts during the rest of the week.”

It’s like the little girl who replied to her Sunday School teacher’s question, “What is a lie?”, with, “An abomination to God and an ever-present help in times of trouble.” We may laugh, but it is tragically true. Our post-truth world of lying pastors and prophets, politicians and presidents, business and civic leaders, is witness to this reality. Truth and trust are twins. In the global pandemic of misinformation and lies, we do not know (the) truth, so we turn to people, especially leaders, we trust. If public trust in leaders is broken, then we are at the mercy of all sorts of (evil) forces, as Edleman Trust Barometer shows in a recent study.

The Church of Jesus Christ supposed to be a transforming model of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth, yet we are a conforming copy, if not a mirror image, of broken sinful society. Is there no real difference between Christians and people in general – in life, in marriage, in attitudes, morality and behaviour?

I don’t buy all that the research says – the reality is more nuanced. My experience tells me it’s “yes” and “no”. However, it does call us to face the moral bankruptcy of Christianity. Ruthless honesty is required to find and live the reversal of Gervais’ phrase and findings, “the Christian congruence truth”: that there is, and can be, consistent integrity between true Christian beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. That the biblical gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom, rightly taught, believed and lived, really does have the power to transform people in their moral character, with growing integrity in Christlikeness.

It raises the question, what is the gospel we preach and believe? Is it “a different gospel” about “another Jesus” that imparts “a different spirit” that does not have the power to transform (2 Corinthians 11:4)? The kind of gospel we preach is the kind of Jesus we really believe, which is the kind of (S)spirit we receive and impart. Does it transform us?

Also, it’s not what we say we believe, it’s what we live that reveals what we actually believe. Otherwise, we are what Jesus called “hypocrites”: play-actors with masks, who believe and say one thing and do the opposite. The “religious congruence fallacy”. Jesus publicly rebuked such hypocrites, especially leaders, saying they were blind leaders of the blind, white-washed on the outside but rotten on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).

This raises another question beyond the gospel: do we make converts-believers or disciples-apprentices of Jesus? It’s what I call the salvation/sanctification gap: we get people ‘saved’ by faith and baptism in Christ, but we do not “teach (train) them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Little or no spiritual formation in the character of Christ. Also called the authority/power gap: by believing in Jesus we claim God’s authority as his children (John 1:12), but evidence of its transforming power is lacking, or absent.

The result is the integrity/credibility gap: who we really are before God (who God knows us to be) and how others see and believe we are, grows further and further apart. Till the chasm of guilt and shame swallows us, eventually exposing us publicly. Both the ‘ordinary Christian’ and the ‘greatest leader’ can have these gaps, and suffer the consequences.

MORAL CHARACTER IN LEADERS, CHRISTIANS, AND PEOPLE IN GENERAL

The scandal of flawed moral character in spiritual leaders and believers. Biblically, leaders represent – are representative of – their people. They are meant to be an embodied example of who their people are to be and become – as Jesus was/is for his followers.

For example, the rabbis teach that God created the priesthood to be a living representation of what God intended all Israel to be and become. God’s purpose for Israel was to be “a holy nation of royal priests” (Exodus 19:5-6), ministering to God on behalf of the nations, and ministering to the nations on behalf of God. The idolatrous nations exiled/scattered at Babel (Genesis 11), in contrast to God’s holy nation, called and chosen to bless, redeem and reconcile the nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

Therefore, the way of the priests = the way of Israel = the way of the nations. Hopefully for the better! But the way of the nations, became the way of Israel (“we want a king like the other nations”), became the way of the priesthood (corrupt and immoral). So, God brought the nations to Israel in judgement: they destroyed the Temple and priesthood, and exiled Israel into the nations, to be ruled by their gods. God’s ultimate discipline is to hand us over to our lusts, our sinful desires, to our demons, the gods we secretly worship.

Similarly in the new covenant:  the way of Christian leaders = the way of Christians/church = the way of society. We’re God’s salt of the earth and light to the nations (Matthew 5:13-16). We lead in the Name of Jesus. Spiritual leaders are to be living examples of Christ’s character, which our people follow and become. As Paul says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

To the degree that moral character is qualitatively different, people who don’t know Jesus see and believe, and want to follow Jesus. Then there’s no integrity/credibility gap. There is, rather, “the Christian congruence truth” of authentic consistency in belief, attitude and behaviour – the fruit of ongoing formation in Christ’s character.

Then “even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” (Ephesians 5:3) will be distasteful because of the kind of person we will have become. The titillation of lust and sexual fantasy, let alone pornography, will have lost its appeal. And the idea of acting it out in secret ways, even if we can get away with it, will be naturally repulsive to our sexual character. Not to even mention acts of sexual and spiritual abuse.

Then we will have and exercise, in real terms, the same spiritual authority that Jesus had, evidenced by God backing us up in power: the Holy Spirit in and through us making the difference in our world that Jesus made in his world.

What do the repeated shameful revelations of our leaders tell us about ourselves? At times I think it’s so bad that, if Christianity is really going to enter and live the Kingdom of God, it needs to be born again, again. Is God giving us over to our lusts? To the secret gods we worship? “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).

Because of all the above, leaders and teachers are always held to a higher standard of judgement and character accountability (James 3:1). More so for international leaders.

WHY AND HOW DID THIS HAPPEN WITH RAVI ZACHARIAS?

Having laid the foundation, let me try to account for what happened. There are always multiple factors, never only one or two.

The first factor, personal responsibility, is primary, especially in this case. Let me explain the root of what happened and why it went so wrong, as I understand it.

We must start with ourselves and not blame others for our actions and behaviour. We are never victims if we do no wrong. If others unjustly victimize us for doing wrong when we have not, we answer in the gentle Spirit of Jesus and trust God to vindicate us – as in 1 Peter 3:9-17; 4:12-19. Peter prefaces it by saying, “abstain from sinful desires which wage war against you” (2:11-12), “get rid of” them (2:1). In other words, do not live in unresolved wrongdoing, living out sinful desires and corrupted appetites.Then we are vulnerable to accusation – evil gains leverage and has “a hold over” us (John 14:30).

When we do wrong, the Holy Spirit graciously comes in various ways to convict us of sin. We confess, repent and receive forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). If we don’t respond to the Spirit’s conviction and harden our hearts, continuing in the same way, it becomes a “besetting sin” (KJV) that “entangles us” (NIV) in our Christian journey (Hebrews 12:1). If not decisively dealt with, “put to death with Christ” (Colossians 3:5-10), it will eventually “disqualify us for the prize”. After having preached and led others in what we believe but do not live, we ourselves will be “cast-away” (1 Corinthians 9:27).   

I’ve seen this often with leaders. God takes the wraps off us sooner or later. In our life-time, a merciful discipline for our repentance. Or after death, a revealed judgement of our legacy. Either way, be sure your (unresolved) sin will find you out. That’s what Paul means in 1 Timothy 5:24-25. “The sins of some” leaders “are obvious” and can be judged – the leader can repent. But “the sins of others trail behind”, are hidden, only revealed later – even after death. But definitely at Christ’s judgement seat (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul’s point is: do not lay hands on leaders (publicly recognising them) prematurely, thereby sharing in their sins (1 Timothy 5:22). Carefully test their character first. Else we later have to lay hands off leaders – remove them from leadership – always a painful process!

Existing long-term credible leaders can develop a double life of secret sin if they are not vigilant to “catch the little foxes that spoil the vine”. We must guard our heart and watch and pray till our last breath. Demons don’t give up. The longer we lead, the higher our profile, the greater our effectiveness in God’s Kingdom, the more they oppose us and work our case. That’s why, among other reasons, Paul instructs us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3). C.S. Lewis’ Screw Tape Letters shows how demons study us to find our weak spot, our uncrucified flesh, to gain a hold and ready us to sin, given the opportunity.  

What happened to Ravi Zacharias was not overnight. It’s a slow character malformation over years by one or more of the vices (‘seven deadly sins’), that we don’t decisively put to death in Christ – by getting help, prayer and counsel. We begin accommodating it. And separate it from the whole of us. We rationalise and justify our guilt and shame, eventually searing our conscience. Then that separated ‘part’ increasingly drives us to act out its sinful desire(s), which has to be covered up, ever more cleverly hidden. So, other evil spirits enter: more lies, more deceit, more secrets, more manipulation and control, and so on.

The devil binds us to silence with the threat of utter shame, personal disqualification, if we are found out. Let alone if we’re willing to break its power by bringing it to the light of confession – getting help. We use the same demonic tactic over those we damage and abuse: “if you tell anyone, then…” Spiritual abuse. The truth is: we are as sick as the darkest secret we keep, both the perpetrator and, tragically, the victim.

In short, this progressive spiritual malformation prepares and conditions us to sin, to do evil when the opportunity presents. We are willing to do good but ready to do evil. Eventually, we are not only sin-filled opportunists, but scheming evil-doers. Until we are caught, found out and unmasked, which is a judgement from God called severe mercy.

God gave Ravi opportunity to repent when Lori Anne Thompson began accusing him from 2016 onwards (see here). He denied all accusations, saying the victim was the perpetrator. The common tactic of abusers. Then he settled out of court, but insisted on a non-disclosure agreement. Why do that if he genuinely did nothing wrong? Where there is smoke there is fire. The report, sadly, confirms that there was a serious fire.

I reference this to say that, in my view, what I have described above was the lonely, dark, tormented, secret journey of Ravi Zacharias. Similarly, with all such leaders of broken character who live a double life, to a lessor or greater degree, whether pastors or politicians, Christian apologists or self-identifying atheists.  

OTHER CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS

In a helpful article, Mike Bird says, “This happened – this keeps happening – because of
(1) Evangelical celebrity culture; (2) Big platforms with big donors and a fear of it all disappearing; (3) A lack of oversight and accountability; and (4) A refusal to take women’s accusations seriously.” I will pick up on these and others, with brief comments.

1. Lonely leaders with no real personal friends:

Men are the perpetrators of almost all sexual and spiritual abuse in leadership. Men, generally, do not have real male friends, safe places to be ourself and off-load. “Faithful is a friend who wounds you” in love with truth and trust (Proverbs 27:6). That’s limited by our so-called ‘male inability’ to be emotionally vulnerable and disclose. Our tendency to perform and compete means we find identity in what we do. Thus, we commonly relate via a ‘ministry persona’, not the real me; a role-play with little or no transparency. Consequently, we can be drawn, unchecked, into wrong ways.

Who is responsible for this? You! The leader. We can’t blame anyone else for not having genuine mutual male friends. We either make those safe places or avoid them.

2. The deeper issue of broken, even toxic, masculinity in leadership:

Do we have enough godly sexual character and healthy masculine formation to lead from a critical mass of wholeness? Have we faced our deep conditioning as men? The toxic stereotypes and models of broken masculinity that have formed us from birth – unconsciously and consciously – by our fathers, brothers and men in society. That is part of the way we lead. Ingrained sexist attitudes towards women… to sex, money, power, success. The spirit and structures of systemic sexism continue to advantage men at the expense of women. How aware are we of this? How free are we from it? This is a core contributory cause to developing a double life of abusive leadership.

Who is responsible to address this? You. The leader. We need to get help.

3. Underlying evangelical theology of male sexuality and headship:

This goes to the heart of male sexuality and masculine spirituality. Where they meet and unite in the core of who we are, that’s who we become: healthy masculine men. Are our sexuality and spirituality friends or foes? Separated by guilt? Even shame-full enemies at war with each other? If so, lust-driven sexuality becomes and abusively uses broken toxic masculinity. AND vice versa. Popular evangelical theology on sexuality and leadership (male headship in the home and church) does not address this. Instead, many marriage books further male cultural stereotypes of leadership and sexuality, as in “men are simply sexually driven”, “God made them that way”, “they can’t help it”, “wives, give it to them or they’ll look elsewhere”. This feeds male entitlement and contributes to sexual AND spiritual abuse of women. We need women voices and theologians who are free from sexist stereotypes and cultural male-conditioned theology and praxis.  

4. Refusal to take women’s accusations seriously:

A natural follow-on from the above three. Why? Because the vast majority of Christian leaders are (still) men. Let’s be honest, men, we just don’t take women’s accusations seriously, because most of them are personal. This includes organisational boards. They close ranks. What happened at RZIM happened at Willow Creek: the accusations against Bill Hybels by women victims were dismissed. They were cast as trouble-makers and ‘gaslighted’. Further abuse. The minority of false accusations is no reason to not listen empathetically; instead, to listen with prejudice: “emotional”, “broken”, “manipulative”, “needy”, “temptress”, “Jezebel spirit”. As a man I know what men think even if they don’t say it. History has been so lopsided in favour of male ego and dominance, that if we err we should do so on the side of women dignity, and take them seriously.

Who’s responsible for this? We are. Leaders. We must own this and change it.   

5. Organisational culture and celebrity status:

For decades we’ve imported business models of organisational leadership into church, at great cost. Pastors are CEOs and elders are a board of directors. However, both church and corporates have a culture that we develop for better or worse. Either a healthy or dysfunctional ethos, to the degree 1) our values, policies and practices determine, or do not, how 2) we lead and 3) relate to our staff and people. Too many cultures prioritise charismatic over character leadership, allowing, and even enabling celebrity status. And more so as we excuse violations of core godly values.

Unresolved ego-needs also contribute. Vulnerable to admiration, we believe our own publicity. From good to great! The narcissistic ego on display of many (charismatic) leaders is nauseating! We feel invincible, then think we can get away with things. This leads to abuse. So, we overcoming our conscience to groom our victims.

Who is responsible? The leader. We cannot blame people, or our team, for putting us on a pedestal. That is “subtle victim-blaming of both the secondary victims and direct victims” of abuse, as Tanya Marlow says in her insightful article on five things we must stop saying about sexual and spiritual abusers.

Leadership teams/boards are equally culpable – often as enablers. Some teach a ‘culture of honour’ that gives, among other things, loud standing ovations to speakers, with long intros of Apostle this and Prophet that. I’ve been in two such conferences. I cringed. It’s far from Spirit of Jesus in his humble servanthood. I had the privilege of introducing Dallas Willard at some conferences in South Africa. Each time he would gently bind me to a short intro like, “This is my friend Dallas Willard”! It was his spiritual discipline for God’s glory. We should always and only receive any praise as a pane of glass receives light: the brighter the lighter the more invisible the glass.

6. Lack of oversight and accountability

Follows on from point 5. Leaders are never ‘lone ranger’ heroes of God! Biblically, leadership is in, with, and through team. We lead by being led. The leader who doesn’t submit to being led should not be followed. God requires proper spiritual formation and radical life accountability to other leaders who hold us to The Light without fear or favour. If we walk in the light as God is Light, any shadow that appears in us, or between any leaders, no matter how spiritual, senior or powerful they may be, we confront the shadow. Then we save ourselves and our people. Leaders hold themselves accountable, we don’t wait to be held accountable. We live a disclosed life. When a leader is called to account and they react defensively/emotionally, something is up. Diligent oversight saves us from our ‘unsanctified parts’, our deceitful hearts. The need for consistent ethical oversight of leaders and corporate governance is greater than ever because of character-less leadership in a post-truth world.

7. Big platforms with big donor money and fear of it all disappearing:

With growing celebrity status, the platforms get bigger and the donor money flows more freely. We build churches and ministry organisations dependent on donor money, based on the founder-leader’s charisma and reputation. There’s a point where, no matter what happens, we need to keep the show on the road. If the money doesn’t come in, we go down. So, keep things under wraps to keep the donors happy and giving. The bigger the platforms, the more the money, the greater pressure to perform. The stress and loneliness can lead to erosion of integrity. And we ‘escape’ into a double life.

CONCLUDING RESPONSES AND LESSONS FROM THIS STORY

‘It’s terrible, but… there but for the grace of God go I’. No! We all sin, we all do wrong. But, we’re not all sexually tempted to abuse women, to rape, to damage people for life. This response, Tanya says, “minimises and normalises crimes that should fill us with horror”.

‘God uses broken people, even sexual abusers. It’s not all bad, he did lots of good’. King David is cited. But what Ravi did is of a different order of abuse to what David did. And David repented, Ravi did not. This also minimises the crimes and retraumatises the victims, making God, by implication, the abuser. For the victim, it’s a further spiritual abuse.

‘Jesus forgave the adulterous woman: “I don’t condemn you. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Don’t condemn Ravi’. This is complete ignorance of the story. She was a victim, not a perpetrator. This is not comparable with what Ravi did. Jesus said, “go and sin no more”. Ravi refused every opportunity to repent, continuing in abusive sin.     

Should we no longer read Ravi’s books or listen to him on YouTube? In one sense, truth is truth and it stands, no matter who said it. So, if I read Ravi’s works, or refer to him, I will do so with discernment and disclaimers because of what I now know. However, we can learn all that Ravi taught from other authors and apologists who have not been sexual and spiritual abusers, who have not brought God’s name and Christian faith into such disrepute.

This story is a sober warning and wake-up call for us. Especially for leaders. It should put the fear of God into us, in a healthy way! Let me close with some personal words. 

In regard to victims, as Tanya says, we must learn “to listen carefully to their story and echo the horror of it truthfully, without seeking to paper over any cracks… to honour them and apologise to them and lament with them and ask for their forgiveness… to earn back the trust in order to be a place of healing… to ask what they need and learn from them.”

In regard to leaders, as Solomon says, above all things, guard your heart, because all of your life flows from it (Proverbs 4:23). Live and lead from the easy yoke of Jesus, from rest, by keeping to your daily, weekly and monthly rhythms of spiritual disciplines, for the protection and health of your heart. Those who think they stand, take heed lest you fall.

And if you have any hidden history of unresolved sin, if you’re living a double life in any way, GET HELP RIGHT NOW… for God’s sake, for your people’s sake, for your own sake… in that order. Save your people from yourself, and go get help!

God have mercy on us leaders.
God have mercy on the people we lead.

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The Crown: Visible Leadership & Invisible Government

Meditation on 1 Samuel 8 and 9.

A major turning point in Israel’s history was when they asked for a visible king like all the other nations: “Give us a king to lead us”. God took it personally. It was, in effect, a rejection of God’s invisible kingship over them (1 Samuel 8). Painful. Especially after God, as Israel’s Warrior-King, saved her out of 400 years of slavery by supernaturally defeating the gods of Egypt. After God continued to manifest his invisible kingship in many powerful visible ways.

This is fallen human nature. We want the crown. We want the gift we see more than the Giver we do not see. The security of materiality, the physical form of leadership more than God’s spiritual Ruling Reality – to which all earthly forms point. It’s easier to live by sight than by faith. Easier to have visible leaders like other nations than to live by trusting God and his Kingship over us. The former tends to idolatry of humanity, the latter is true worship of the true God. Idolatry costs us dearly.

Though rejected, God obliged Israel, warning her of the consequences of physical kingship – see the list in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. In short, kings want to be served (using people and resources), not to serve. Be careful of what you ask. God may give it to you!

So, Saul, the first king, is introduced as an “impressive young man without equal, a head taller than any others” (the ideal champion people wanted) and a wandering donkey wrangler searching for stray donkeys (1 Samuel 9). That symbolised Saul’s stubborn and disparate kingship over the rebellious people who asked for a king. Their lust for a king was such that “all the desire of Israel turned” to Saul (9:20). Whereas all their desire ought to be turned to God (Psalm 73:25).

In contrast, the second king, David, is introduced as “a man after God’s own heart” (desired God above all else) and a shepherd caring for his father’s flock (1 Samuel 16). David knew Yahweh as his shepherd who met his every need (Psalm 23:1f). That symbolised God’s shepherding of God’s own flock via human agency, pointing to God’s ideal, the future son of David, Son of God. David’s own kingship, however, fell far short of the reality it represented. And likewise, all the kings that followed. Until Messiah Jesus, the promised son of David, who was/is God’s ultimate answer to, “Give us a (physical) king like the other the nations.”

Jesus of Nazareth was not only the material model, but actual embodiment, of God’s invisible Person and Ruling Presence. Jesus inaugurated, taught and lived God’s Kingship on earth as it is in heaven, teaching his followers to be and do the same.

However, even Jesus had to wean his followers from dependence on his physical presence and leadership. Even that could become idolatrous! After Peter rightly identified Jesus as God’s King, he opposed Jesus’ talk of suffering and death. Messiah must live and conquer! Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, your human ideas and interests oppose God’s ideas and interests” (Matthew 16:16-23).

Therefore, first Jesus’ followers had to go through the deep disillusionment of their leader suffering and dying in weakness, unable (apparently) to save anyone, let alone Israel. Would this traumatic test, this inversion of “leadership”, throw them back onto God’s kingship in purified faith? Or would they turn to another physical king to meet their expectations? A golden calf to save them, to take them back to “the good old days”?

Secondly, before Jesus suffered and died, he carefully taught and prepared them to live under God’s direct invisible government by his indwelling Holy Spirit (e.g. John 14 to 16). The Spirit will be “another Parakletos”, not physically with them as Jesus had been, but spiritually in them, just as the invisible Spirit of his Father had indwelt Jesus, governing and guiding his every thought, word and deed… even to death… and resurrection.

Thirdly, after his bodily resurrection, Jesus weaned his followers from dependence on his physical presence by repeatedly appearing and disappearing over a period of 40 days. Then he ascended “out of sight” to be coronated as The King over the heavens and the earth, and to pour his Holy Spirit into them. They had to live by faith and not by sight.

Christ’s followers throughout the ages are called to live in this way under God’s invisible leadership by the indwelling Holy Spirit. To live out his heavenly Kingship as a model and witness to all nations of what it will be like when Messiah returns to set up his visible Kingdom: a wholistic spiritual-socio-political-economic-ecological reality of God’s Shalom. An ‘in-Spirited’ tactile reality transformed into the fullness of God’s glory, of which every created material form has always and only been but a shadow representation.

Sadly, however, Christians (let alone people in general) continue to lust for physical kings and leaders to champion their cause. We do not really trust Jesus’ Kingship over us and over secular powers. The result – the price we pay – is that Christians and large parts of the Church continue to be captured by the idolatry of leaders, blinded by the ideological powers working through them. We knowingly or unknowingly live out their corrupt rule.

We are thus more a copy of contemporary society than a model of God’s coming Kingdom. We are unable to think biblically – with Jesus’ worldview, beliefs, mindset, values and ethos – about socio-political-economic-ecological issues and cultural challenges. The issues and challenges that come and go in each generation evangelise and divide Christians and Churches way more than we evangelise and reconcile them. We are as polarised along party lines and divided by ideological powers as society in general.

To conclude, the above is not to discount or reject physical leadership. No, it’s to strip our need and desire for, and our exercise of human government from all idolatrous elements, by recovering a biblical theology and praxis of leadership. It’s the call to see Jesus’ Kingship. To renew our thinking. To recommit to genuine faith in God’s invisible leadership, as we follow Jesus’ way (ethics) of the Kingdom, yielding to the government of the Spirit guiding our every thought, word and deed. In short, to form the moral character fit for such leadership.

To the extent human agency models and imparts THAT biblical quality of leadership and governance, whether political, civil or spiritual, we receive it. To the extent it does not, followers of Jesus prophetically speak truth to power. Why? Because “Jesus is Lord”, not Caesar! That common proclamation in the Early Church meant Jesus is King and Judge over all – by virtue of his suffering servant leadership, vindicated in resurrection power, given all authority over the heavens and earth. Jesus will hold every leader (emperor, king, president, government, priest and pastor) accountable for their leadership and treatment of people. Shakespeare was right, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

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Authority – Kingdom Leading in an Uncertain World

These notes are the basis of Alexander’s presentation to the Australian Vineyard National Leadership Conference, 30 October 2020. You can view the teaching: https://youtu.be/6J3YAorIjmI


Hello, my name is Alexander Venter, and I’m a recovering sinner-pastor.
My life’s work is to understand, live and teach the teachings of Jesus.
That, for me, is essentially learning to live a life of love, just as Jesus loved us.


My Prayer for you: (from Dallas Willard)

I pray that you will have a rich life of joy and power, abundant in supernatural results, with a constant and clear vision of never-ending life in God’s world before you, and of everlasting significance in your work day by day as servant leaders – a radiant life and a radiant death.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen!


My Text: Matthew 28:16-20  (my biblical quotes are from the NIV)

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

My focus is on the authority Jesus was given by the Father, and then given to his disciples, commissioning/authorising them to go and make apprentices of him from people of all nations. We are mandated in God’s co-mission (Missio Dei) to make disciples of Jesus, not of ourselves or our church. We can only make disciples of Jesus to the degree we ourselves are his apprentices – then God’s authority operates through us in real terms.

Therefore, leadership in God’s Kingdom, in Jesus’ effective authority, is largely determined by the degree of our personal apprenticeship to him. An apprentice is a person who commits to live with, to learn from, to become like their teacher/master. The Great Omission in the Great Commission – the elephant in the room of the church – is that we make converts, church members, but not apprentices of Jesus. That is the reason why Christians and the Church are so powerless to effect change in our world. We are more a copy of the world, of prevailing culture and ideology, than a model of God’s Kingdom come.

The context into which Jesus was born and did his ministry has similarities with the context in our world today. It was a time of pressure and extremity under Roman rule, with psycho-spiritual-emotional reactions, and socio-political responses from leaders and people. Jesus offered The Kingdom of God as the answer, discipleship to him in his community, in contrast to what the other groups/parties in Judaism were teaching in response to the times (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, Chief Priest and Elders, and ‘the sinners’). We are first followers and apprentices in Jesus’ Way of the Kingdom, then we pastor and lead in that Way. What does it mean to exercise ‘Kingdom leading’ in God’s authority, just as Jesus did, in our uncertain world? I will comment on our changed world context and post-lockdown church, then define authority, power and leading, in Daniel and in Matthew.


Our Changing Context:

The corona pandemic, among other factors, has forever changed the world we live in, the uncertain context in which we now pastor/lead. Awareness of these signs of the times will help us exercise our authority in Kingdom leading, with wisdom, compassion and fortitude.

Signs of heightened stress in times of extremity (from clinical & social psychologists):

  • Fear & anxiety – confusion & uncertainty.
  • Grief & sadness – mortality & mourning.
  • Loneliness & depression – mental health issues come to the fore.
  • Numbing the pain, escape into addictions and self-created reality and fantasies.
  • Relational stress & breakdown – marriage, family, domestic abuse, GBV.
  • Economic recession, widespread social protests/unrest, challenge of social conscience, pull back to political populist nationalism and conservative protectionism, geo-political power-plays, increased inequality, human rights violations, environmental challenges.
  • Loss of personal and social security – more crime & violence.
  • Dooms-day syndrome, end of the world prophecies, fanciful Bible interpretations.
  • Ideological clash and deception, conspiracy theories, lies and fake news.
  • The need for a savior, for metaphysical answers, seeking spirituality, return to religion.

A prophetic perspective sees it as God’s shaking, of realignment and ascendency of spiritual powers. This crisis is a kairos moment, a time of disaster/judgement and God-opportunity for Kingdom breakthrough and change – for revival. The “signs of the times” (Matthew 16:1-4) must be interpreted in light of Hebrews 12:26-29. The Lord of the heavens and the earth is shaking all things, our nations and churches, and the powers over them, that what cannot be shaken, his eternal Kingdom, may emerge for all to see. We are being tested as to how much of our lives, ministries and churches are truly built on the unshakable rock of the King, on the “gold, silver and precious stones” of living and teaching the Kingdom Jesus lived and taught, or on the “wood, hay and straw” of lip-service to the Kingdom (Matthew 7:24-27; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).


Leading Post-Lockdown Kingdom Church:

What is the ‘new norm’ after lockdown, post-corona? Here are some of my observations that will introduce my discussion on leading in Kingdom authority from Daniel and Matthew:

  • No longer Sunday dependent church with all its performance. Don’t go back to “Sunday as usual” too quickly. Rethink how to do church differently in this changed context.
  • No longer building and office centred, no longer program driven.
  • No longer centralised preacher/pastor dependent – yet we must lead more effectively.
  • The failure of megachurch and the man of God/celebrity leadership syndrome. The average church is 70 people. That’s the reality we must work with.
  • We’ve learnt to do online church (favourite new phrase, “unmute yourself”!). It has been a necessary surrogate tool. However, the danger is that technology forms us in its image; it is not a neutral tool. List the negatives and positives of online church. Some folk will be forever lost in its convenience and smorgasbord offerings. Don’t abandon it, but balance forms of online church by using technology wisely for clear purposes.
  • BUT what is now clear:
    1) the need for community, as in face-family home churches of high touch and care, within larger congregational gatherings that meet in different ways at different times – all with corona safety protocols for love of neighbour.
    2) The need for pastoral care, intentional relational engagement, healing ministry.
    3) Continue outward missional community service, as most engaged in under lockdown.
    4) Devolve leadership by purposeful discipleship/formation to release more people and leaders to ‘go do’ ministry and mission ‘out there’, to start/lead small groups to disciple others (Vineyard ‘mantra’ IRTDM: identify, recruit, train, deploy, monitor).

All this means: it is a time to revisit and clarify our philosophy of ministry, to reflect on our mission and vision, what is of core value and priority, with greater flexibility on how it’s contextually expressed, being far more fluid and organic than programmatic. Defined by ‘doing the Kingdom main and plain’, not ‘the excellent’, ‘the experimental’, ‘the exotic’. This essentially means making apprentices of Jesus in the four irreducible dimensions of God’s unshakable Kingdom, the four Kingdom missional implications that define church:

Power Encounter: discipling our people in the ministry & power of the Spirit
Personal transformation: discipling them in character formation to Christlikeness
Social transformation: discipling them in wholistic social engagement
World mission: discipling in evangelism and church planting – a world vision


Kingdom Leading and Authority

Leadership in God’s Kingdom – leading God’s Kingdom people – starts with Jesus: his vision, theology and praxis of the Kingdom, with a focus on his understanding and use of authority. When it comes to exousia (authority), the book of Daniel is clearly Jesus’ primary source – discussed below. But, let me first define authority (exousia) and power (dymamis), and their necessary inter-relationship.

Power is the ability to do something, the innate capacity (strength) of someone or something to act with the energy/force/resource needed to make it happen (i.e. empowering).

Authority is the right to do that something, the right of action by appointment, commission, mandate (i.e. authorization – the authority to act and do certain things).

Authority is always person related whereas power can be person or otherwise related. For example, nature has innate power/energy, or spirit, which is personal power/energy. The human body is potential power activated by spirit – either human, God, or evil spirit. 

Biblically, all authority is from God, the Creator-Ruler-King. Thus, all authority is derived, given, delegated, and ultimately represents God’s authority, for better or for worse. Authority is the right of action linked to a commission, mandate or appointment, to be used or exercised in keeping with – in the spirit, boundaries and limits of – the purpose for which it is given. I.e. authority is the right to use  and  the right use of  the power/resources available to us. Thus, all authority (and power) is ultimately dependent on and accountable to God. Misuse of power is abuse of authority (authoritarianism), no longer a ‘domain/dominion’ directly under God, but a ‘domination’ of/by evil working against God. In short, authority is given and can be exercised, or neglected, or assumed, taken, usurped, resisted, abused, etc. BUT, we must be clear: all authority and its use will be held accountable by God.


Daniel, Authority and the Son of Man

The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew memsalah (dominion/kingdom/authority) and the Aramaic soltana (domain/rule) as exousia in Daniel. Authority is a domain, a rule, a kingdom. As in our personal kingdom, and human national kingdoms (empires), and God’s kingdom. Therefore, ‘kingdom’ can be defined as the effective range of our will, the authority we have in real terms to make things happen, for our will to be done. Where God’s will is done, his Kingdom has come!  In summary, exousia is used in Daniel of:

  • God (Yahweh) whose rule/kingdom/dominion is eternal (Dan 4:3, 34-35; 6:26)
  • God rules over all earthly kingdoms: “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan 4:32).
  • All authority of human-earthly rulers derives from the spiritual realm. Ultimately from God, either directly or via angelic authorities in obedience to their divine commission; or (mostly) via spiritual powers that are fallen/evil in denial of their divine commission (Dan 10:13, 20-22; Psalm 82). Thus, the character of any visible national government represents the spiritual formation of the (corrupted) invisible authority behind it.
  • God installs and removes kings (Dan 2:21; 4:17,31; 5:20) and the spiritual powers behind them, taking away their exousia (Dan 4:35, 7:12, 10:13,20): “God does as he pleases with the powers of the heavens and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him ‘what have you done?’” (4:35).

Daniel describes four empires/kingdoms (“beasts”) that arise on earth with the spirit-powers behind them, perpetrating injustice and evil (ch 2, 7). In contrast, God’s Kingdom is “power and wisdom” (Dan 2:20), “rescues and saves, performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth” (Dan 6:27 cf. 4:2-3). In the days of the fourth beast (the Roman Empire), the most brutal cumulation of all other kingdoms, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself endure forever… the rock cut out of a mountain, not by human hands” (Dan 2:44-45).

This is how it happens (Dan7:9-27). The Ancient of Days takes his throne/seat in the heavenly court and rules against that culmination of evil embodied in the fourth empire. Then “one like a son of man” (a human) comes on a cloud into his presence and is given all authority and power:  all peoples, nations and languages worship him (a human being! v.14). They no longer worship other human rulers and the powers behind. The “son of man” represents the saints of the Most High who refuse to worship the rulers and their empowering spiritual authorities (their ideologies and idols). This mysterious human-divine figure ascends from suffering with/for the saints under the empire’s oppression (vv.21,25), and is enthroned in the heavens so that “the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven (i.e. ALL exousia) will be handed over to the saints” (v.27). The people of the Most High receive God’s Kingdom-authority of “power and wisdom” that “rescues and saves, performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.” So, the Son of Man embodies the new humanity with authority restored to rule the earth (vv.18,22,26-27 cf. Gen 1:28).


Matthew’s Son of Man, Authority and Leadership in the Kingdom

Jesus based his theology and praxis of Kingdom authority and leadership on THIS prophetic worldview, believing he was Daniel’s Son of Man (his self-designation, occurring 81 times in the Gospels). Coming out of suffering and death, through resurrection and ascension, Jesus says, “All authority in the heavens and the earth has been given to me”. He is quoting Dan 7:9-27; i.e. Matthew’s Great Commission literally fulfils Daniel 7.

Jesus gives the saints, the new humanity who will rule the earth, that authority. NOT to go and take over and dominate people and nations, as the four beasts and “the rulers of the Gentiles” do in their idolatrous worship of spiritual powers (Matt 20:25). Rather, commissioned to go and make apprentices of Jesus in his Kingdom from people from all nations. Jesus: the quintessential human being, the new humanity at God’s right hand. We live King Jesus’ heavenly rule on earth, doing his will as in heaven. Indeed, we are in training for reigning in this life and the life to come on the new earth. And we lead by lived example in this great Kingdom enterprise.

The nature and exercise of this Kingdom-Authority expounded by Matthew:

Earthly confrontation after birth: Herod, puppet king of the Romans, the fourth beast, authorises the killing of Jesus – all boys two years and under are killed (Matt 2:16).

Spiritual confrontation at start of ministry: The devil himself tempts Jesus in the desert. Each time Jesus overcomes by using the authority of God’s Word (Matt 4:4,7,10).

Teaching with authority: The people recognise that Jesus taught with divine authority in contrast to the teachers of Torah who quote rabbis as their authority (Matt 7:28-29, 9:6,8).

Miracles by Kingdom exousia: Matthew 8 & 9 narrates ten miracles that introduce Jesus’ teaching, and sending the twelve on the mission of the Kingdom in chapter 10. Jesus is the new Moses (Deut 18:17-19) leading a new Exodus through ten miracles that defeat the oppressive spiritual powers which keep Israel in exile from God. In Matt 8:5-13, the second miracle, a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to exercise his authority to rescue and heal his servant. This military representative of Daniel’s brutal fourth beast (the most evil exousia, Jesus’ enemy) sees and confesses God’s exousia in the Son of Man – echoing confessions by Gentile rulers in Daniel 3:28-29, 4:34-35; 6:26-27. Because the centurion is under authority, he exercises authority to order his soldiers to dominate/enforce the will of Rome, coercing Jews into submission. He recognises Jesus has spiritual authority because Jesus evidently operates under God, using his authority as merciful power to serve and save those exiled from God, liberating them from evil dominion to do God’s will by free choice. “Speak the word and my servant will be healed.” Amazed at such understanding and consequent faith, Jesus says, “I have not found such great faith” in all the supposed people of God. The centurion has structural authority with the resources/power of the Empire to back him up. He knew Jesus has spiritual authority because God backs him up with heavenly resources/power. This exousia is clearly the basis of all Jesus’ gospel miracles that defeated the powers and freed people from enslavement.

Exousia to forgive sins: In healing the paralytic (Matt 9:1-8), Jesus quotes Dan 7:13, “the Son of Man has authority on earth”, and specifies it, “to forgive sins” – because he spoke forgiveness to the man. That causes consternation. To prove he has authority to forgive sins, he commands the paralytic to “get up and walk!” And it happens! So, evidently, his sins are forgiven. The crowd is in awe that God “has given such exousia to men.”

Exousia given for Kingdom co-mission: After modelling Kingdom authority by speaking the word in humble service, Jesus gives his apprentices “exousia to drive out evil spirits and heal every disease and sickness… freely you have received, freely give” (Matt 10:1,7). He warns them that exercising such servant authority will incur opposition and suffering.

The keys of the Kingdom: Jesus reveals his identity, the Son of Man, to his apprentices (Matt 16:13-20). Peter sees and confesses Jesus for who he is: God’s Messiah/King (only after the centurion and spiritual powers [demons, Matt 8:29] recognise Jesus for who he really is). Jesus gives Peter, thus the church, “the keys of the Kingdom”: authority to open and close, for people to enter or not, to “bind” and “loose”. Jesus had modelled using “the keys”. I think of it as having the keys to a powerful motor vehicle. We enter, activate and work with a power way beyond our own. We are transported and empowered to do God’s will. J.P Meier (Historical Jesus scholar) defines the Kingdom as a power-zone, a force-field, that Jesus lived in and operated through. If we do not drive the car responsibly, selfishly misusing the authority and power given to us, we cause harm to ourselves and others. A driver’s license (preparation and authorisation) is needed, but that does not guarantee responsible usage of the authority and power – trusted character does.

Exousia to lead in the Kingdom: For the disciples, exousia in God’s Kingdom is “being the greatest” (Matt 18:1; 20:26), “first”, “master/leader”, requesting to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand (Matt 20:20-28).
First, Jesus is shocked at such grasping presumption. He says that authority to lead/rule means immersion/fellowship in his suffering, drinking his cup: the suffering love which forms the character that can be trusted to responsibly handle such authority, to fulfil the purpose for which it is given.
Second, Jesus has “all authority”, yet he knows its limits: only the Father gives those places to whom the Father is preparing, training with the formation fit for such authority.
Third, Jesus exposes the mindset of all his apostles: the ten are angry because they too want to sit on those thrones next to Jesus – “the thrones set in place” in Dan 7:9f, the thrones Jesus had earlier spoken of to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). That reveals their dominant consciousness of exousia as position, power, prestige, title and turf. Jesus responds: The Gentile rulers and officials use authority to “lord it over” people, to enforce, control, dominate, in order for their will to be done. To make their kingdom great again! “NOT SO with you! Instead, whoever wants to be great among you, must be your servant (diakonos), and whoever wants to be first must be your slave (doulos, a stronger word) – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

Here Jesus joins Daniel’s Son of Man and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, embracing both as his identity-destiny in his co-mission with the Father, forming his life to fulfil both. I.e. the authority to lead and be great in the Kingdom is spiritual influence and power based on self-sacrificing service, not structural position and coercion based on being served. God gives authority in real terms to those who serve, as they suffer in love of those they serve, to free them from slavery to sin, sickness, demons, death, injustice, ideology, poverty (Luke 4:18). God backs them up with heavenly grace, the resources and power they need when they need it. Even if they are crucified at the hands of earthly and spiritual powers, God will vindicate them by the ultimate power: Resurrection. In short, Jesus’ exousia is the freedom to serve by laying down his life in suffering love, and to take it up again (John 10:18). As Martin Luther said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” 

The authority that Jesus exercises is clearly from God (Matt 21:23-27): The Jewish leaders eventually come to see and recognise this in Jesus’ final week of confrontation with the powers. Unlike the people, centurion, demons, and Peter, they refuse to acknowledge and confess it. Rather, they decide to kill him. Though they think they are “the saints, the people of the Most High”, they are the real pagans serving Daniel’s fourth beast, the brutal Roman authorities. They bow the knee to and are instruments of the evil powers, the idols of Compromise and Corruption, of Temple, of Torah, of Land, of Jewishness.


That brings us back to The Great Commission: After this tour of authority and power in Daniel and Matthew, here are the summary points of what it means (from Matt 28:16-20):

Visionary Worship: Authority begins with seeing Jesus for who he really is. When they saw him, the Risen King, they bowed down and worshipped him, though some doubted (I love Matthew’s realism of the “not yet” in the brightest “already” of the Kingdom!) It is the first time in Matthew that Jews worship a human being. But this is Dan 7:14. Our only adequate response to the coming of the Son of Man, to his self-revelation, is worship. All authority and its exercise is born in vision and worship, in surrender to the authority of the Risen King.

Collaborating Co-Mission: All the authority in the heavens and the earth given to the Son of Man is given to us, the new humanity. The authority is linked to The Great Commission: go and make apprentices of Jesus from all kinds of people in all the nations. Exousia is collaboration with The King in his servant mission to the ends of the earth.

Participating Baptism: We enter and exercise collaborative authority by participation and immersion in the death and resurrection of the Son of Man, by which we die to our sin and rise to life in The Trinity. Baptism is initiation of apprentices of Jesus on confession of faith into (The Eternal Trinitarian) community. We teach/train them to daily live the meaning of their baptism – it is not a once-off ticket to get into heaven! That’s making converts, not disciples. Baptism in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit” is plunging apprentices into the nature and character of the Trinitarian Reality:  The Life and Love of the Father and the Son by the Spirit. Learning to live eternal life (of the Trinitarian kind and quality) on earth is to do God’s will as it is in heaven. That is authority in real terms.

Transforming Character: Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Participating baptism leads to transforming character. This is the challenge of leadership authority in the Kingdom: train apprentices of Jesus to obey everything he commanded (“teaching” was formational training). We cannot obey what he commanded simply by trying. But by training, through the Kingdom practices of Jesus, we become the kind of person who predictably obeys God when we need to. “Train yourself (and others) to be godly” (1 Tim 4:7), having the spiritual fitness to naturally and easily do what Jesus would do if he were you, in any given situation at any given time. That is transformation into the character of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). We become like Jesus, who obeyed all his Father commanded for love of the Father (John 15:9-10), doing his will on earth as it is in heaven. Thus, God consistently backed up Jesus’ authority with heavenly power. Among Jesus’ commands is love of God and neighbour (Matt 22:34-39) and “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons” – do the works of the Kingdom (Matt 10:7-8).

Empowering Presence: “And I will be with you, in you by my Spirit, till the job is done.” The job is to make apprentices of Jesus from people of all nations, who do God’s will for love of God and people. Jesus’ abiding presence is the power of his Spirit, the charismata – enabling grace-gifts – that back up our exercise of authority. What he authorises us to do, he empowers with the resources of his Spirit. Till we complete the job (Matt 24:14)! Then the Son of Man will return on the clouds of glory to rule and reign with us at his side!

Therefore, the process of “Authority – Kingdom Leading in a World of Uncertainty” is:
From visionary worship of the Son of Man, Risen Ruling King;
To collaborating authority in his co-mission of making apprentices by lived example;
To participating baptism in his death and resurrection, living in/from the Trinitarian Reality;
To the transforming character and empowering charisma of Christ… in real terms… till our job is done!

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The Risen Lord Renews Our Calling, Part Two: Loving & Leading

This is the second part to my teaching  on The Risen Lord Renews Our Calling: Fishing & Feasting (see my notes). A continuation of the same post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, now focused on loving and leading (see the video teaching). John shifts the attention from Peter and the disciples fishing and feasting, to Peter’s personal renewal of calling to lead, from love, with an implied contrast to John’s calling, the beloved disciple.

Using homiletical license, we can say that Jesus, the master-psychologist:

First, recreates the scene of their first calling in Luke 5:1-11, for them to relive and renew their calling in resurrection power.

Second, recreates the meal of the Kingdom feast that he frequently enacted, breaking bread and fish – his shared life, now in resurrection power.

Third, in so doing, Jesus recreates the scene of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus while warming himself around a fire (John 18:15-27). For emphasis, John repeats the word “warm/ing” three times along with Peter’s three denials. That incident – Peter’s guilt-ridden, pain-full memory of his threefold denial – is now reversed by Jesus as he creates a new event around a new fire, a resurrection healing memory of a threefold confession and forgiveness, affirmation and commission.

Renewal of Call to Lead by Love (John 21:15-17)

Imagine the dramatic scene. Put yourself in Peter’s sandals. He was cold after swimming to the shore. He warmed himself at the fire that Jesus had made. Then, “when they had finished eating”, he turns to address Peter. Why did he wait till after the meal to address Peter? Was he contemplating what to say? Perhaps quietly praying for Peter as he had done earlier (John 17:9,15; Luke 22:31-32)?

So, as they all sit around the fire warming themselves, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”, and waits for his answers. Peter must have thought, “I’ve seen this movie before!” His three answers reversed the words he spoke only two weeks earlier around the fire outside the High Priest’s courtyard. Then Jesus commissions Peter, renewing the call, now not to fish people, but to shepherd his sheep – going beyond “have you caught any fish?” to “do you love me?”, beyond “doing” to “being”.

Jesus pierces Peter’s heart with the demand of love, just as Peter pierced his heart with sorrow by his shameful threefold denial (especially because he said he would die for Jesus, John 13:37). Matthew 26:69-75 shows a downward spiral of intensity around the earlier fire: Peter first denied being “with Jesus”, then swore an oath, “I don’t know the man”, finally he “called down curses on himself” to prove he was telling the truth! Now the Good Shepherd comes to seek the one sheep that has gone astray. He prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:32). He knows his sheep, tenderly calls him by name (his birth name, “Simon son of John”), and gently leads him out to be the lead-shepherd of Jesus’ flock.

The three questions:

We should not read too much into the usage of agapeo (love) in Jesus’ first two questions and phileo (love) in Peter’s three answers. Scholars have shown that John uses these two Greek words for love interchangeably. The most we can say is: Jesus’ use of phileo in his third question comes down to Peter’s level of “you know I phileo you (affectionately love you)”.

The point is: Jesus wants to know, does Peter love him after he denied knowing him? To hear his verbal confession/commitment in this regard. Jesus wants to know if love the source of your ministry and leadership, indeed, life itself? Anything else will not sustain, it will subvert us. We all live and lead from mixed motives: for identity, to feel good about ourselves, for success, popularity, power, etc. The demand of love is the heart-motivation. To love is to obey Jesus (John 14:15,21). Jesus’ persistent questions of love echo the essence of God’s revelation to humanity: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”, “Love one another as I have loved you”, “I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me”.

His first question “Do you love me more than these?” refers, not to the disciples sitting there, but to the fish, Peter’s fishing business and ‘life as usual’ (see my notes from last week). What or who do you really love? That ultimately is your life and worship either of God or gods – “money, sex and power” – the traditional false trinity in church history. What or who you love is your treasure. That is where your heart is.

The three confessions:

The questions face Peter with his own heart and his failure. He answers, “You know that I love you!” The words reverse “I do not know him”, and affirm his love and commitment to Jesus, despite acute awareness of his sin. In effect Peter is saying, for all of us, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you! You know me, I can’t hide anything from you. You know I’ve messed up, that I’m weak and sinful. Nevertheless, I really do love you – as faulty as my love may be!” This is implied in his third response when he “was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time” (v17).

Jesus pressed the point. He wants to know how honestly in touch we are with ourselves. Then he can entrust his sheep to us! We are all wounded healers. To the extent we deny our own brokenness, we minister and lead from a wrong source, from faulty motivations. It leads to use and abuse God’s sheep for our own purposes, to achieve our vision, as the false shepherds of Israel did (Ezekiel 34:1-6), as the “hireling shepherds” did in Jesus’ day (John 10:1-13). Confession is indeed good for the soul. It cleanses and forgives, releases and empowers us, so that our brokenness and failures do not disqualify us in our God-given calling.

The three commissions:

Jesus’ response to Peter’s honest confessions/affirmations of love, is not to exhort him to be strong, do better, be faithful, etc, but to entrust his church to Peter! Entrust his lambs to Peter! Can you believe it? Jesus never called the successful, professionally holy, Torah obedient, theologians, lawyers, to follow him; but simple fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, very ordinary broken people. He patiently, lovingly, transformed them into leaders that would change the world!

“Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep”. In the context it means, “feed my sheep just as I provided for you and fed you this morning.” Jesus is our example, the Chief Shepherd, who calls us to lead with him as his ‘under-shepherds’: to lovingly feed his lambs and sheep, to care for them in their pain, sin and failures, as he would if he were us. Peter later teaches this from personal experience (1 Peter 5:1-4). They are HIS sheep, not ours! The Church does not belong to the man of God, the pastor, the elders, but to Jesus! He bought it with HIS precious blood. He will hold us accountable as to how we shepherd and lead. Jesus’ commission is clearly based on his teaching in John 10:1-18, which in turn clearly refers to Ezekiel 34:1-16.

Following and Leading from Love (John 21:18-24)

Why did Jesus do this personal confrontation with Peter in the presence of the other disciples (John 21:2)? They see and hear the drama. Perhaps, because Peter said at the last Passover meal, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I will never… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”. And all the other disciples said the same (Matthew 26:33-35). That happened in community around a meal and is now reversed in community around a meal. In other words, Jesus is also addressing them, through Peter. And also, because Jesus reinstates Peter as their leader. He does it in their presence because, what unfolds, shows that there is still insecurity and comparative rivalry among them, as is common among leaders and people.

After Jesus’ threefold commission to Peter, he says, “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want… Follow me!” (John 21:18-19). Earlier Peter had “wrapped his garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water” to swim to Jesus (John 21:7-8). He did what he wanted, when he wanted, taking the initiative. That is the mark of youthful leadership, the ideal of freedom.

Maturity, however, is different. It faces death. It goes through death into resurrection. Leadership in the resurrection is the freedom of surrender, God’s true liberation, entered into by the obedience of “not my will, but yours be done”. The longer we “follow me”, under the loving discipline of the Chief Shepherd’s rod and the staff, we learn to lead by being led. The paradox of Kingdom leadership. We surrender initiative to him in all things, just as he surrendered initiative to his Father in all things, thereby leading by being led (John 5:17-20). It means we let go. We surrender control, trusting his patient and persistent love that initiates, defines and leads us. We learn to no longer define ourselves but allow God to (re)define us through community, through others. Incredibly vulnerable.

Like our Master who was stripped naked, flogged, and re-clothed in a purple robe (John 19:1-2), God slowly but surely strips us of that which identified and defined us in our heroic early years of ministry and leadership. God uses people and circumstance, ‘strangers’ who walk on the shore, even our enemies, to do this. We open our hands in vulnerability, even stretch them out to be nailed to a cross. We lead with spiritual authority and real influence, like Jesus, to the extent we allow ourselves to be led by those whom God uses to dress and take us to where we would naturally not want to go. That is leading in, by, and from the suffering love of God in Jesus, who suffered the brokenness of those he led, healing and transforming them in his resurrection. So, to lead in the Shepherd’s Spirit is death to self, to live his love in resurrection power.

This kind of mature selfless leadership is what truly glorifies God; just as God’s choice of Peter’s martyrdom was “the kind of death by which he would glorify God” (John 21:19); just as the Good Shepherd “glorified God” (John 12:23-27) by “the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). Indeed, Peter literally “followed in Christ’s footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21), “knowing that I will soon die as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (2 Peter 1:14). Reliable tradition says that Peter was executed by the Romans, crucified upside down at his own request, because, he said, he was not worthy to be crucified right side up like his Lord and Master. Astonishing.

To complete the story. Perhaps, in all of this we see John ‘setting the record straight’ in his old age, long after Peter had glorified God through his life and particular death. I say this because we see Peter still looking around and comparing himself with John (John 21:20-23), just as we do with other followers and leaders: “Lord, what about him?” “Why didn’t I first recognize it was Jesus?” “Does Jesus love me as much as he loves him?” “Why didn’t I get to rest my head on Jesus’ chest and listen to his heartbeat?”

Jesus’ answer is, “It’s none of your business! YOU follow me!” God’s plan and destiny for each of us is different, because we are uniquely loved and called by God. That is what gives us our value and identity, our meaning and purpose. Insecure leaders cause great damage to their fellow leaders and those who follow them. The sooner we learn to be fully secure in God’s personalized love for us, the more we surrender to that love, and learn to lead in and from love, as Jesus did.

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Guidance in Leading A Kingdom Response to Corona

A full solar eclipse

I was asked this week to share thoughts on giving leadership in response to the corona pandemic. Pastors and spiritual leaders carry a particular responsibility before God to guide churches, and society in general, with a godly response. How do we think about this crisis, and what do we do? Note that this is from a South African context in response to developments here. But it has application globally.

Biblical thinking, theology, does matter! It leads to right or wrong attitudes and practices, depending on our underlying beliefs. How do we respond to God in faith at this time, and not react in fear to the situation? We’re living in unprecedented times: a micro-virus holds the whole world to ransom, to a lockdown not seen in our life time, with all the socio-economic-political implications. It is very serious. Our lives have changed. Globally, as I write, there are 468,644 infected & 21,191 deaths (see live tally, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). It’s a kairos moment, a time of threat AND opportunity, of disaster AND of God’s Kingdom breaking through like we’ve not seen before. How do we maximise a ‘Kingdom response’ that is life-changing at this critical time?

Kingdom-Prophetic Perspective:  How do we think biblically about this pandemic?

‘Corona’ means crown. The scientists who, in 1968 came up with the term coronavirus, noted that the virus they were looking at under the microscope resembled a solar corona, the bright crown-like ring of gasses around the sun, visible in a solar eclipse. However, corona is not king!

Jesus is King! He is the Son that shines so bright with his crown of thorns, from his throne of the cross, that his beautiful light is blinding darkness. The darkness of human sin & sickness, suffering & death – of hell itself – that he took into his own body, to overcome evil and free humanity from its power. In his death AND resurrection, Jesus is victorious and rules over evil powers, all pandemics, all catastrophes. Not in arrogant triumphalism! But in humble compassion, because he suffered, and suffers, with and for all who suffer. Mercy is the mode and manner of his majestic reign that gives light and life to all who turn to him. This is the message we seek to live and preach, of the King to whom all other crowns (coronas) must bow, the King who is the hope of the world.  

What on earth is God doing at this time?  God is shaking all things, all the kingdoms of the earth, so that what is unshakable may emerge for all to see and receive: God’s Kingdom (Hebrews 12:26-28) in his Suffering Servant, by whose wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The entire biblical message is simply: God is King… God will become King. While God is – and always will be – sovereign over all reality, including our lives, something serious went wrong after creation and turned against God. So, God will become King by defeating that evil rebellion, putting everything to right.

How then do we view pandemics and natural disasters?  They are due to the fall of humanity into sin and death, part of the chaotic rule of ha satan – Hebrew for the opposer of God, his purposes and his people. Humanity in Adam and Eve lost their God-given authority – their kingdom – to the devil, who is now “the god of this age who blinds the minds of those who do not believe” (2 Cor 4:4). Satan is the perpetrator of all that works against God and God’s purpose of Shalom-Good for humanity, of all created reality.

So, has God lost control?  No! God is King, sovereign over all. God has no equal opposite. Satanand his kingdom of evil spirits are created fallen beings. The Hebrew Testament shows that God can even use ha satan as an instrument/servant of judgement. It also means that no matter what evil does, God can ultimately use it to fulfil his purpose. More so, no matter what happens, God works in it for our good, for those who love him and are called as per his purpose (Romans 8:28). This requires faith to see what God is doing in each kairos moment. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8) – in all things – where God is present & active, to work with God!

What is God’s answer to corona?  The Messiah. God will become King. God becomes King in two accumulative historical steps: Jesus inaugurated God’s Kingdom 2000 years ago, in principle and power, and will consummate the Kingdom when he returns, in fullness and finality. This is to defeat and “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and free humanity and creation into the fullness of God’s Shalom Kingdom. Paul uses three tenses for this mystery of salvation: “God has delivered us (past)… will deliver us (future)… and will continue to deliver us (present)” (2 Corinthians 1:10). Evil has been defeated at the nailed-pierced hands of Jesus, is being defeated at the prayerful hands of the Church, will be defeated at the Second Coming. In other words, we’re in a war that we cannot lose, a life and death battle with evil in all its forms, including coronavirus.

Practical-Responsible Perspective:  How do we give leadership, what do we do?

We teach our people the Kingdom has come, meaning, we engage with conviction and courage as a time of great Kingdom opportunity to work with God (listed below). We also teach that the Kingdom is yet to come, meaning, we wait in prayerful hope for God’s breakthrough, facing reality head on, being honest about where we are at, and reaching out to others in need.

Our people must avoid two extremes: an overemphasis of Kingdom now that is presumptuous and arrogant, denying reality due to “faith in the blood of Jesus”, “corona is hyped/fake news”, “we can meet, touch each other”, “we’re immune to COVID-19 because of PSALM-91”. That’s presumption, not faith. The devil tempted Jesus with this, quoting Psalm 91; but Jesus said, “don’t put God to the test” (Matthew 4:5-7). Or, an overemphasis of Kingdom not yet that is faithless and fearful, succumbing to reality in doom and gloom, escaping into “it’s judgement, it’s the end”, “hoard stacks of food and withdraw”, “save yourself”, “the rapture can happen any moment”.

Therefore, the radical middle we lead and teach our people is…

  • As citizens of heaven PRAY ceaselessly, “May your Kingdom come and defeat this pandemic… have mercy, O God.” Pray continually for miraculous breakthrough.

  • As citizens of our nation, PRAY for the President and government as they lead us in this difficult time (1 Timothy 2:1). Pray for all health workers who put their lives at risk. Pray for all who are vulnerable, sick and dying. Pray for the poor & unemployed, for business & the economy.

  • It also means supporting and upholding the government requirements of “social distancing”, sanitization and lockdown. Distribute the list of requirements during isolation to all church members, that they may be good citizens as per Titus 3:1-2, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always be gentle to everyone.”

  • “Social distancing” is better reworded as “physical distancing AND social solidarity”. Keep bodily distance (1.5m) but socially engage via all the technological means available to us, for love and care of our families, friends and people in need.  LOVE = physical distancing + social solidarity. NB: think about what this (LOVE) means for so many poor and unemployed people living in townships, informal settlements, rural areas, for whom hand sanitization, running water, storing up food, working from home, social distancing, drawing on savings, means little or nothing. If we are willing, God will show us how we can do something to help those within reach. The Church can be the nail-pierced hands of Jesus to them – a shining witness of love.  

  • Make arrangements to pastorally care for your people through increased ‘high (tech) touch’ by video and audio calls, pastoral letters, Whatsapp groups, pastoral visits with bodily distancing, live-stream teachings, video recordings, getting food and medicine to those in need. Ask God to show you how to do church, and leadership, creatively different at this changing context.

  • Have special sensitivity for the elderly, singles, for those vulnerable to mental health issues, depression, loneliness, dysfunctional marriages and potential domestic abuse in the ‘pressure cooker’ of the home in weeks of lockdown.

  • Finally, the lockdown means we now have the space and time to do three things:

    a) Deepen our discipleship to Jesus by engaging more in spiritual practices like extended solitude, learning silence, hearing God, meditation & prayer, fasting, good spiritual reading & study, among other exercises. (My two books are available as a resource, Praying the Psalms, a 12 week program of meditative prayer in 12 psalms; and Doing Spirituality, where I discuss all 24 classic spiritual practices in the Christian tradition).

    b) Deepen our relationships with our closest others we live with, learning to listen and love, resolve differences & conflicts, play games together, read a book together, etc. The lockdown will test us and our relationships in new ways. Use it for personal and relational growth.

    c) Deepen our social solidarity with others in need – commented on above.  

God bless you with the grace and wisdom, the love and faith that you need at this difficult time to lead your people as Jesus would if he were you! I pray that over you in the Name of Jesus!      

I close with an honest, biblical, prophetic and practical quote from Martin Luther in giving advice to Lutheran pastors in a letter in 1527 when Wittenberg was overrun by the plague. When asked what he would do, this was his answer: 

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

(Luther’s Works Volume 43, pg 132, the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess).

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Repentant Reflections on Jean Vanier

For those who know (of) Jean Vanier, the recent disclosures by six women of his alleged sexual relationship with them, is profoundly distressing, to say the least. For those who don’t know of him, it might not be a big issue. It is, however, a HUGE issue. Especially for the women. And sadly, once again, for all spiritual leadership and God’s integrity in the eyes of the world.

My reflections explore WHY? What can we learn from this?

Yesterday morning before leaving for our church service I read a tweet about this breaking news, which led me to the statement released by L’Arche International, reported in The Guardian. Read L’Arche’s official report of its credible investigation. It is harrowing.

What a shock! I felt so grieved and gutted that I could hardly sing. My worship was an inner lament, “O God! O God! Have mercy! Christ have mercy!” The whole day of Sunday I felt a heaviness of spirit, a dark mourning in my soul. It took me another day to get to the point of reflecting and processing in writing before God.

I repeatedly asked why I felt so strongly about this? So broken and repentant? Was it for Jean Vanier, a (now) fallen hero of the faith? Was it for the shattering of my own deep respect for him? Or was it for the women who were abused by him, spiritually manipulated into a sexual relationship with him? They are the ones for whom God weeps – they carry this shame. Probably more will come out into the light of truth, as always happens in such cases.

The brief story.

Jean Vanier was founder-leader of L’Arche (The Ark). Started in 1964. He died 7 May 2019. It was a ministry to care for folk with (develop)mental disabilities. This remarkable charity has communities in 38 countries that care for thousands of people. I heard about Vanier while reading Henri Nouwen – who, in his later years, went to live and work in a L’Arche community. I read all I could of Vanier’s life, work, and writings. A profound lived “reality of love” in selfless service, intentional community, healing and spirituality.[1] Vanier and Nouwen, among others, were formative for me in my years in Soweto, as we worked for Kingdom reconciliation under Apartheid, and set up an intentional inter-racial Christian community. I held Vanier in as high regard as Henri Nouwen. Many who knew him in his Catholic circles considered him “a living saint” – as Mother Teresa. He was a layman, not an ordained priest. He never married.

After investigating the women’s accusations, L’Arche International reports: “Evidence shows that Jean Vanier engaged in ‘manipulative sexual relationships’ from 1970 to 2005, usually with a ‘psychological hold’ over the alleged victims.” They came to him for spiritual direction. His pattern was similar to that of Rev Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest Vanier called his “spiritual father”. Philippe, who died in 1993, was banned from exercising any public or private ministry in a trial led by the Catholic Church in 1956, for his theories and the sexual practices that stemmed from them. Several women accused him of sexual abuse.

Why is this such a big issue? What can we learn from it?

Here is my repentant reflection before God:  

Why is this disclosure about yet another respected spiritual leader so dismaying for me?
Is it a time for sackcloth and ashes?
Who knows the (dark) thoughts and (devious) motivations of the human heart?
Ultimately only you, Lord.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is ANY offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Our hearts seduce and deceive us in its slow but sure moral corruption.
If we allow it.
Only ruthless self-honesty with God and significant others, to our own hurt (even death), will save us from ourselves.
S/he who thinks they stand, TAKE HEED, lest you fall.
It’s the little foxes that destroy the vine.
Each little temptation, deviant thought, “white lie”, corrupted appetite, self-justifying belief, must immediately be brought to the light of community with God and significant others.
It’s called confession, living a fully disclosed life.

If left unattended, or excused, malformation of moral character sets in.
Corruption of sexual character – in fact, the Big Three: Money, Sex and Power.
It gives power to evil in self-deception, in the silent prison of guilt and shame.
The lie of self-preservation: “whatever happens, don’t let anyone know, don’t be caught out”
So, we progressively live a double life, sworn to secrecy.
We are as sick as the (dark) secrets we keep.
It remains unseen for years till the fruit pops out in certain attitudes, words and behaviour.
Often when we least expect it. Others see and notice it.
Disintegrates our integrity of being into other “selfs”, sick “parts” that we compartmentalise and accommodate and live with – for 35 years in Vanier’s case.
These “identities” then drive us, eventually with tormenting demonic energy.
Which seek to deceive and destroy – through us – those around us, those to whom we minister.

Who we really are, our true character, is known ultimately only to God.
Will be fully revealed when we die and appear before The Judgement Seat of Christ.
Then all will be known.
Lord, have mercy!
Better to come clean NOW, disclose our dark secrets and devious thoughts.
And get help, so that we don’t deceive ourselves and destroy others.

Paul says: watch your life – your believing, teaching and behaviour – very closely, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
What will it profit you to gain the whole world’s respect by admirable selfless service in the Name of Jesus, and yet lose your own integrity and personhood while doing so?      

This might appear selfish. It’s not.
The real concern is the women and others, “the hearers” who were left spiritually manipulated, sexually abused, deeply damaged.
At the hands of a male Christian spiritual leader… again. Again. Again. Again.
When will it ever end? Only in the age to come.
As part of this spurious specie of (male) pastors/leaders, all I can say is, “God forgive us! Women and children, please forgive us!”  

Do I now disrespect and throw out all Jean Vanier has done? No, not at all. Do I discount what he’s written? Not at all. I now read it with clearer discerning lenses. We honour the good work that has been done – God uses broken people, we’re all wounded healers – while honestly facing the loss of integrity that has now tarnished his legacy (the first sexual abuse he engaged in, if disclosed at the time, should’ve disqualified him from leadership). Above all, however, we pray for the healing restoration of these women.

What can we learn?
 

Be radically honest with yourself. Be in touch with your needs, with your brokenness. With what drives you in certain contexts with certain people. And get help.

Do not remain unmarried if you are not “gifted” with celibacy, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. The doctrine and practice of celibacy of the priesthood has caused untold pain for many victims of abuse. It should be re-examined, even abandoned.

Do not over-react with generalisations (“don’t trust leaders”, “Catholics are bad”, “mystical spirituality is spurious”). Don’t under-react with excusing or minimising it all in the name of “love” or “mercy” or “good works” (that enhances the pain of the abused. We forgive sin, even patterns of immoral character, but that doesn’t mean the perpetrator must not be held accountable).

Be careful of (exclusive) one-on-one relationships in spiritual companionship or direction, in discipling, mentoring, fathering and mothering.

Be discerning of any spiritual manipulation, of any emotional pressure, relational dependence, deceptive beliefs, character failure.

Never idolise human leaders. We only have one human-God, Messiah Jesus. The rest of us are merely servant leaders in recovery all the way to heaven!

Don’t follow or entrust yourself to leaders who are not in touch with their brokenness. Who are not led or do not allow themselves to be led. Who are not genuinely accountable to others. Who do not work in team. They are dangerous.

Above all else, guard your heart, keep your integrity, grow your character, for it’s the fountain from which we all live, whether we know it or not, for better or for worse, with eternal consequence.
In other words, model the real deal of life to the full, due to godly character formation before the audience of One – Who sees all, knows all, and gives us the grace we need when we need it.


[1] “L’Arche is founded on love for people with mental disabilities. If we keep our eyes fixed on them, if we are faithful to them, we will always find our path. We are constantly called to draw this love from the heart of God, and from God’s mysterious presence at the heart of poor people.” Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p.7.

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Call of Pastoral Vocation & Spiritual Leadership

Today (1 April 2016) I was supposed to be in Cape Town addressing the Vineyard pastors and leaders of the Western Cape, South Africa. I injured my back on Wednesday and had to cancel my trip. But I had written my teaching earlier in the week, so I thought I should upload and share it. For all who read this, especially pastors and spiritual leaders, what do you think of the following?

What is the essential call (vocation) and work (leadership) of the local church pastor?

It’s a vast subject, but scripture teaches that pastoral leadership is a life-calling and gift-ministry from the Ascended Christ (Eph 4:7-11, the ‘pastoring-teacher’). In the OT the king and leaders were (supposed to be) the servant of YHWH as the shepherd of Israel. Jesus fulfilled that calling as The Good Shepherd of God’s flock, YHWH’s Suffering Servant. This Chief Shepherd and Ultimate Servant is the model to be emulated by his ‘under shepherd-servants’. He’s also the means, by his Spirit, by which we fulfil this vocation to which we are called – continuing HIS vocation by HIS Spirit. And yes, this means suffering and rejection… true pastors enter into and exercise the love of God in Christ, by the Spirit, suffering people’s sin and brokenness. There is nothing like pastoral leadership to bring out one’s insecurities, our deepest unresolved ‘stuff’! So, to be a pastor, a spiritual leader, is not something you do, it’s who you are and are becoming. It’s not a role or job per se, it’s a way of life – Jesus’ way!

The nature of this “perplexing profession” (Eugene Peterson) has been analysed and explained in various ways.[1] Over the years, through theology (study) and praxis (my personal experience), I have come to my own summary of the pastoral vocation: The sevenfold nature or key responsibilities of pastor-leaders. I assume the definition of pastor as the leader of a faith community, whether it’s 15 people in a house church, or a congregation of 80, or of a large church with multiple staff, where the team of pastors each specialise in one or more of the responsibilities below. However, the lead-pastor in whatever size church is overall responsible to see that these seven key roles are faithfully fulfilled. There is a progressive order – they build on each other. And like any good preacher, I’ve used alliteration hoping it might just stick in our brains!

  1. Prayer: To be a person of The Presence, bringing God’s presence to people and bringing them into God’s presence. If you are first a full-on follower (disciple… a disciplined learner) of Jesus for yourself, then those around you will naturally be led and pastored into following Jesus. Prayer is your primary spiritual formation, the fuel that fires – and keeps fanning into flame – your passion and love for God and his people. On a recent visit to Mexico Pope Francis said to the bishops and priests, “Pastors are not God’s employees to dispense and administrate the Divine. Our identity is prayer: we work with God – pray living and live praying.” It’s what Jesus said, in effect, regarding his life principle: “Though I am the Son of God I do nothing on my own initiative; I only do what I see the Father doing, I only speak what I hear the Father saying” (John 5:17-21). Prayer is co-working with God in what he’s doing, leading his people in true worship and community, ministry and mission. This is (your) spiritual formation. It is the foundational cornerstone of the vocation of the pastor and leader, on which all that follows is built.
  2. Purity: To grow in purity before God. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matt 5:8). The heart is the essence – the core and the whole – of who we are, out of which all of life flows (Prov 4:23). Danish theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Our divided and disparate, fragmented and over-stimulated focus on many demands, is the impurity of idolatry. David prayed, “give me an undivided heart to fear your name” (Ps 86:11). Life, leadership and ministry, depends on our cultivation of integrity of being, purity of heart, integration of focus – the simplicity of the unhurried life doing the “one thing (that) is needed” (Luke 10:42). The one thing is moral character, formed by gazing on God’s beauty (Ps 27:4) in the face of Jesus Christ, as Mary did. Then we see God ever more clearly each day, in all things, in every person, circumstance, happening – learning to work with him in the sacrament of the present moment. This is what makes us pastors and leaders. We require this purity of heart because God entrusts us with HIS Word, Purposes, People, and World. Whether we know it or not, we all live, lead and pastor, in real terms from “the weight of glory” (C.S. Lewis) on/in us, or lack thereof. To the degree we lack in Christ’s glory – his pure character – we depend on other idolatrous dynamics and resources to live, lead and pastor.
  3. Preaching: To proclaim God’s Word to his people and world is a most awesome privilege and responsibility.[2] We are called to faithfully study, teach and proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) without fear or favour, forming God’s people “under the authority of The Word” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), teaching them how “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20; Wimber’s “the meat is in the street”). The Apostles stated their priorities: “We will give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Don’t ever underestimate the privilege, priority and power of preaching God’s Word as a pastor and leader.
  4. Purpose: To lead God’s people into their inheritance: God’s Kingdom purposes. I.e. to give a clear vision of the Kingdom, keeping it before the people, with the spiritual direction needed to achieve it. We are called to lead by example, by vision and proclamation, by discipling and implementation. Pastors must lead the church into God’s purposes – break new ground – or it will meander in maintenance mode.
  5. Pastoring: To care for God’s We are called to love, to be tender, merciful, compassionate, as Jesus was. Prayer & purity will keep us from burnout, from becoming cynical with people and their pain. Pastors gather, heal and grow God’s people to wholeness, by patient and persistent love in the discipline and governance of the Lord. Shepherds naturally smell of sheep, they get involved in people’s pain.
  6. Personnel: To train God’s people in their callings and gifts. Proclaiming God’s purpose gathers people to be cared for, AND to be equipped to do ministry and mission (Eph 4:12). Pastors grow and equip people, forming teams and leaders, by the Vineyard mantra: “IRTDM” – identify, recruit, train, deploy, and monitor.
  7. Program: To organise God’s people into a cohesive community of worship and witness, creating programs and structures of ministry (in the church) and mission (in the broader community, and to the nations). Minimal organising and administrating ability is required for a pastor-leader to be effective – it’s a discipline of character! 

We lead by being led – in these seven dimensions – by the Spirit, in the sacrament of the present moment. So, be teachable, accountable, honest, humble, hungry for God…

[1] The classic by Seward Hiltner, Preface to Pastoral Theology (Abingdon, 1958). Also Henri Nouwen, Creative Ministry (1978) and The Living Reminder (1982). See Eugene Peterson’s four books on pastoral ministry, all by Eerdmans, Working the Angles (1987), Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1992), Under the Unpredictable Plant (1992), and The Contemplative Pastor (1993).  

[2] See the chapter, “Pastors as Teachers of the Nations”, in Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today.