The Church: fast food franchise or flock...
Two Lord's Days this month, Church of the Good Shepherd's sermon text was Galatians 6:6:
The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.
Biblical churches forget this command today, but it remains a critical aspect of the life of God's Household. The members of God's flock are commanded to "share all good things" with their shepherd. In our churches, though, it's not normal for the sheep to be focused on their duties toward their shepherds. Rather, their focus is on the duties of the shepherd to care for his sheep. And in some ways, this is natural. The health of the flock is integrally and uniquely tied to the work of the shepherd. So it's important the pastor fulfill his obligations to his flock. If he doesn't, the flock will inevitably suffer.
Our Lord taught us that, when thieves and robbers attack the flock, the good shepherd gives His life to protect the sheep, but the bad shepherd flees. So clearly, the sheep need protection and God has called shepherds to protect them. The work of the shepherd is crucial for the welfare of the flock. You can't read the Bible without seeing how vulnerable sheep are to bad shepherds, the men our Lord calls "hirelings." But good shepherds feed and protect their sheep.
So what are the pastor's duties as he shepherds his congregation?
He is to pray for them, to study, preach, teach, visit, counsel, lead the other staff, plan and lead elders (session) meetings, marry, bury, baptize (or dedicate) the children, do the premarital counseling (and of course the marriage counseling, also), be the leader of any discussions and implementations of church discipline, make occasional appearances in the community--both personally and on the newspaper's op-ed page, be out and about doing evangelism, raise perfect children, have a happy wife who oversees all aspects of the church's women's ministry, keep track of the money and make sure people give enough (to God) so the elders aren't too pressured, write for the church newsletter, lead a men's Bible study, go on (or lead) short term missions trips, host the missionaries when they're home, make pastoral calls at the hospital and nursing homes, assure that there's a dynamic youth program, fulfill his responsibilities to denominational entities, run comparative analyses of the programs and ministries of the church he serves and other successful churches in the community so that his flock won't leave for greener pastures; teach his members to use their gifts; find a place of service for each member that fits the gift he's been given by the Holy Spirit; make sure the lights are out and the church locked up after everyone's gone; and so on.
Sheep do have high expectations of their shepherd. Thousands of books have been written, tens of thousands of seminars held, on these and other duties of the shepherd toward his sheep. Many of these books and seminars are important and worth studying diligently. But in all this talk about the duties of the pastor, what of the duties of the congregation?
What duties do sheep have toward their shepherd and are those duties also important? Well again, the Holy Spirit answers this question:
The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.
Now normally, those who preach and teach on this passage focus on its financial aspect. They point out the obvious--that sheep are to provide their shepherd with the money he and his family need to live. And in this connection, students of Galatians 6:6 point back to 1Corinthians 9:7-11 where the Holy Spirit applies a rather obscure Old Testament law to this aspect of the shepherd/sheep relationship:
Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, "YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING." God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake?
Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?
It's surprising to note that the central concern of God in giving the command, "You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing," is not animals, but man. The Holy Spirit says it was "for our sake" (man's, not animal's) that this law "was written." Yes, animals should be allowed to eat while they work to produce food for man, but man is of greater value to God than animals. And here we have the Holy Spirit applying this Old Testament command not just to man, but to a certain man--the pastor of a particular church. Shepherds are to eat while they work feeding and guarding their sheep.
Yet that's not quite it. It's not just that shepherds should be permitted to eat while feeding their sheep but that sheep have a duty to feed their shepherds. There should be a one-to-one correlation between the one who's fed, spiritually, and the one who is fed, physically. The one who feeds his sheep the spiritual bread that creates and sustains spiritual life is to receive, in return, physical bread that sustains physical life. Back and forth, back and forth--God's command is reciprocity. The pastor is to feed his sheep and his sheep are to feed their pastor.
So now have we hit the nail on the head? Is this command only God telling us to pay our shepherd a good salary? What exactly are "all (the) good things" we are commanded to share with our shepherds? No doubt it would include money to pay the utilities, home mortgage, and car loan. Maybe tomatoes from our garden (no zucchini, please), also. But if we're supposed to share "all good things," surely we owe our shepherds more than money and garden produce.
When I was a teenager, I was not a model child. Each year when my father's birthday rolled around, I'd ask him what he wanted for his birthday and he'd respond, "I want an obedient son."
So here is the first "good thing" we owe our pastors. My father would take no pleasure in receiving a gift of a new tie from me if it came from a disobedient son. But a new tie from a son who had repented and was now obedient--that's entirely different, isn't it? He'd receive that gift with joy, knowing it came out of his son's loving gratitude.
Similarly, the principal gift a godly shepherd yearns to receive from his flock is loving obedience to his preaching and teaching and private exhortations from the Word of God--the green pastures and still waters he has led them to. Without that first "good thing" any other "good things" are just window-dressing.
As disobedience reproaches the ministry, so obedience honors it... When there is a metamorphosis, a change wrought; when people come to the word proud, but go away humble; when they come earthly, but go away heavenly; when they come, as Naaman to Jordan, lepers, but they go away healed; then the ministry is honored... You cannot honor your spiritual fathers more, than by thriving under their ministry, and living upon the sermons which they preach. (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, Banner of Truth Trust, 1981, p. 125.)
Watch the Apostle Paul's relationship with the different New Testament churches as it's reflected in his epistles and you'll catch a glimpse of how important obedience to the Word of God was to him as a shepherd. Clearly, the church at Philippi was more obedient than the church at Corinth. That's one of the reasons Paul was willing to receive financial support from the Philippians but not from the Corinthians (1Corinthians 9:12-15; 2Corinthians 11:7-11; Philippians 4:15,16). He was firm in demanding that any financial support he received come from hearts of loving gratitude and obedience to the Word of God.
It was as if the Corinthians asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he replied, "An obedient church--that's all. And if I don't get that, I won't take any monetary gifts from you, either." But when the Philippians asked the same question, Paul answered, "You know, things are tight here in Thessalonica. I don't feel that I can accept any financial support from the Corinthians because they're likely to use that as an excuse for further personal attacks against me as well as unbelief toward God. But I know your hearts. You're faithful to the Word and you love me with no strings attached. So if you're willing, I'd love to receive a gift from you to help me in my work here in Thessalonica."
The Apostle Paul was on guard in his relationship with the Corinthians, but a tender love and affection giving issue to grateful sharing of money characterized his relationship with the Philippians. Nevertheless, all of it centered on whether or not his flocks obeyed the Word of God he had fed them.
So think about it. God has designed the church to be a place of intimacy, a family with fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters who live together in love as His children. It's not that the church provides a line of products that address each sheep's particular felt needs, but that as members of God's family we live together in such a way that our household life is itself the principal means by which the Holy Spirit works for our salvation. And it's obvious that, like the human household, God intends His shepherds to be at the center of His Household, like a human father working hard for the good of each of its members. A significant part of the cohesion or unity of this household is the product of the shepherd being faithful in his leadership, and the members being grateful for that leadership and "sharing all good things" with him out of their love. The gratitude, and love flow freely in both directions.
Not just intimacy, but loving reciprocity is to characterize our shepherd/flock relationships. God commands that the shepherd lovingly feed and protect and discipline the sheep. But God also commands that the sheep lovingly care for their shepherd.
This is the opposite of the way most of us with biblical commitments think of the church. We look at pastors as just one more aspect of a particular church's offerings--along with church music and youth programs and Sunday schools--all products from which we pick and choose, willy-nilly. It's like the family traveling to Colorado for their vacation that stops for lunch at an exit where every major fast food restaurant sits on the interstate's frontage road. And rather than forcing everyone to eat at Taco Bell, Dad's personal favorite, Dad drops each family member off in front of their own franchise of choice--Johnnie at Burger King, Sammy at Arby's, Mom at Olive Garden (she'll have to hurry), and Susan at Wendy's.
We think of the different churches in our communities as franchise operations, each with her own branding efforts while offering what are essentially the same lines of products. You've got your basic marrying, burying, Sunday morning sermons, Sunday morning music, mid-week children's programs, women's Bible studies, and youth groups. So which church you go to is a function of where your itching is most intense at any particular time. Got teenagers? Find the best youth program. Want to please your wife? Focus on the franchise's products for women. Can't stand drums in Sunday morning worship? Find a Reformed Presbyterian congregation where they sing a capella. Have a job but feel guilty about putting your children in a secular day care program? Find a church that offers day care run by women of the church who love Jesus. And if your sole concern is Sunday morning services that have helpful sermons and are done on time, choose a low-commitment church where the preacher reads Rick Warren's sermons he purchases each week by E-mail.
Generally, the church a particular family attends is a function of that great idol of American culture, personal choice. Yes, usually it's the father who makes the choice, but he bases his decision on whichever wheel is squeaking the loudest. Let's see, hymns or praise choruses? Good youth group? What book is the women's Bible study doing this fall? How long a drive is it and how convenient is the parking? Do they have a building program I'll have to hit up my pension fund to support? How long are the pastor's sermons? Will my kids listen to him? Is the nursery clean and bright--gotta admit, for my wife a dingy, dirty, or dark nursery is a showstopper.
So is it any wonder that we approach giving God His tithes and our offerings as if they were fees for services rendered? Sure, none of us would be so crass as to refer to them as "dues" or the "purchase price" for our teenagers' youth program. Yet we think of the money we put in the offering plate as the price of admission. It wouldn't be right to attend a church without supporting its programs, would it?
But where's the shepherd and how does he fit into the equation?
The problem with this method of choosing a church is that it's completely destructive of the sort of the congregational life we find taught and lived in the New Testament. The verses immediately prior to Galatians 6:6 are a short exhortation to the members of a church to "bear one another's burdens," and the particular burden mentioned is the work of church leaders helping those who have fallen into sin to come to repentance and be restored to full participation in congregational life. This is the context for the command that "the one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him."