BJ Update (15th July, 2014)

Dear Friends,

Thank you, as ever, for your ongoing prayers and love. Belinda, Bethany and I appreciate you all beyond words. I have survived the fourth of the twelve treatments and to say it is getting rough is putting it mildly. I am feeling a bit human again as of this morning, and now have a week of calm before the storm of the next treatment begins to rage. Although I never expected that this would be easy, neither did I have any way of knowing just how difficult it would be. I am just laying hold of the Lord for the necessary courage and tenacity to get through this, knowing that He will continue to be, both in and through me, what I could never be of myself alone.

One of the things that has thus far made this a bit tougher than it otherwise need be is that my Oncologist, though obviously brilliant at knowing how to best treat me, is a bad communicator, and looks at me with almost quizzical disbelief whenever I try to ask him questions. Because of this my questions were going unanswered, which is of little help to me given that I am one of those people who finds difficulties easier to go through when able to garner whatever understanding of things is there is to be had. That he is giving me the right treatment I do not doubt, and I remain grateful in the extreme for him so doing, but when it comes to providing the support I need in order to go through the treatment he prescribes, he isn’t really much use at all.

However, we eventually went to see our Family Doctor yesterday who, when it comes to not only general medical expertise, but also being supportive, is little short of marvelous. He was a very great help and I got some of my questions properly answered at last. In short, he has helped prepare me to handle and endure the increasing unpleasantness that is to come. He explained too that although Consultants, Oncologists included, are great at recommending, and providing, correct medical treatment, they are often without any bedside manner and, having done that aspect of their work, are keen to just move onto the next patient as soon as possible. He assured me that my Oncologist is a top man in his field, but advised that I am best going to him, as our Family Doctor, for any ongoing support and encouragement such as we need.

I wasn’t aware, as we left his surgery, that there would be anything in this of prophetic relevance regarding wider spiritual issues, but a few hours later I had a veritable epiphany concerning it, and the Lord showed me that it was a parallel of an extremely important aspect of church life. What we have is an Oncologist with the knowledge and ability to prescribe the extremely specialist treatment that is currently best for me, but without either time or ability to help me actually go through the process, and to survive it, without going crazy. We also have a Family Doctor who, although as a non-specialist, and therefore without the knowledge to actually prescribe the right drug for my post-cancer treatment, nevertheless has enough general medical knowledge to understand the issues, prescribe me anything that will help deal with the after-effects, and provide the emotional and mental support needed. And the salient point is that both men are needed, but in different ways, and that if the specialized expertise of the Oncologist was all there was to it, and the support of the Family Doctor in actually helping me to get through the treatment was missing, then the whole process would become even more difficult and unpleasant for me than it already is.

And what the Lord impressed on me is that this is an amazing parallel of the relationship between those who provide the specialized academic knowledge we need in order to properly understand scripture, and elders whose function is to help and support people on a personal and practical level to both apply and live its truth, in order that they might be growing ever closer to the Lord. But of course the big problem is that the Christian Church has historically made a terrible mistake regarding this, and which even biblical churches are repeating; and that mistake has been, so to speak, to merge the Oncologist and Family Doctor into being the same person.

In the New Testament the only permanent local church leadership we see is that of elders, there being strict qualifications concerning the attributes which they must possess in order to be safely recognized as such; and even the briefest reading of those qualifications in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus will reveal that the ability to teach the truths of scripture is merely one of the requirements, and not even the most prominent of them either. Indeed, the qualifications are primarily to do with being someone who is able to relate to people in a very personal, open and easy going way, and to show them, through actual personal example, how to grow in the Lord and handle the problems therein encountered. Being able to teach and defend the truths of scripture is obviously a part of this, but a part which, on it’s own, and without the ability of the one teaching to fulfill the relational aspects of the function, is next to useless as far as eldership is concerned. And of course the mistake the traditional church system has made since the erroneous influences of the Early Church Fathers is not only to have reversed the order of church life on an organizational level, but to have further made church leadership all about academic scholarship and theological expertise, irrespective of whether such men as therefore end up in leadership are actually biblically qualified to do so in all the other necessary regards. In other words, church leadership became about academic qualifications and mere biblical and organizational ability – ticking doctrinal and administrative boxes, so to speak – as opposed to the ability to establish significant ongoing and deep nurturing open relationships with people. So-called ‘pastoral care’ thereby becomes merely objective ‘advice’ from ‘the Pastor’ during your half-hour appointment with him in his office, as opposed to having someone in the church you can turn to at any time day or night, who not only knows you well and loves you to bits, but whom you also know extremely well, being therefore able to trust with your very life. Indeed, this mistake concerning the nature of church leadership is at the very heart of what went wrong as a result of the errors of the Early Church Fathers, and which led directly to the whole unbiblical church system with which we have been lumbered ever since.

So what is the biblical balance to be struck here then? How do we get this right? Well, it’s actually very simple, and like all things is just a matter of approaching the issue solely biblically. The rule we should be following, being a simple and logical application of Paul’s teaching concerning the qualifications of an elder, is this: An elder needs to be apt to teach, but just because someone is apt to teach doesn’t necessarily mean they meet the other qualifications of eldership. Indeed, such folk frequently don’t actually qualify for eldership biblically, being often incapable, as ‘eggheads’ are generally perceived to be, of the necessary open and deep relationships involved. Don’t, whatever you do, recognize someone as being an elder just because they have head knowledge and can teach, or because they have been to Seminary and have letters after their names. The qualifications for eldership are so much wider than merely that of intellectual and/or teaching ability, and you recognize men as elders who are so limited in their ability at your spiritual peril.

Men who have great knowledge and technical expertise in matters that help us to understand scripture have a vital role to play, but not necessarily as actual church leaders. Some of them obviously meet all the necessary biblical qualifications and would indeed make wonderful elders, but certainly not all of them, just as some Oncologists are supportive as well as just able to understand and prescribe treatment, whilst many others aren’t. The Family Doctor is therefore vital in such regard, and in our parallel it is the Family Doctors, and not, by and large, the Oncologists (Consultants), who should be elders in biblical churches. What it boils down to is basically this: In order to properly understand scripture we need two things, the Bible itself and the work of academics who, through their scholarship, provide us with the linguistic and historical information needed in order for us to ‘unpack’ and read it on its own terms. Indeed, the mere fact that we have the Bible in the first place is down to the work of scholars and linguists who have translated it for us into our own language. And today, more than ever, with not only books and audio teachings, but now the internet as well, we can access the work of such experts with relative ease. There was a time when the floor of our lounge at home would be covered for hours at a time with large tomes of Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries, plus sundry historical and theological works, all open at certain pages whilst I busily made my notes concerning whichever Greek or Hebrew word studies, or other biblical research, I was at the time engaged in. But now I just press a button on my laptop and the relevant software makes it all appear miraculously on the screen.

It has been said of me, even as a Bible teacher, that I am against learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am against, however, is mistaking it for spirituality, thereby ending up with church leaders who just don’t have it in them to perform their function biblically. They can teach, yes, but what they can’t do – indeed, many of them would actually consider it to be beneath them – is to open their lives to those who look to them for leadership in order to precisely share with such folk their own struggles, problems and sins, and to demonstrate in day to day practical terms how the Lord enables them to have victory in it all. That is what being an example to people actually is. You can’t, for instance, help people to be strong in the Lord in their marriages by merely teaching what the Bible says about wedlock. You need to actually share with people how you have overcome difficulties in your own marriage, and how you have come from defeat to victory in the Lord in practical terms as a result of what the Bible teaches concerning it. Do elders need to teach what scripture says about marriage? Of course! But they must also do so against the background of their own marriages being open to those in the church in order that others can actually see what the Lord wants to do in them, and not just hear about it through objective academic teaching.

So yes, we need the scholars and the academics, and the historians and the Greek and Hebrew experts. Of course we do! Just don’t mix them up with church leadership, unless any of them also meet the Bible’s other qualifications concerning such. And don’t get any of this mixed up with the Seminary system either, of which scripture knows nothing. Seminaries have polluted Christianity by degrees, and although such is a clever pun and a good joke, it is also an excellent example of many a true word being said in jest. Nothing could be further from what we see in the New Testament than the idea of creaming off potential future church leaders from their churches, placing them in an elitist institution with other such potential future leaders, training them to be ‘experts’ at following the Lord and then expecting them to come out of the process humble and servant-like. It is the most complete folly, and I stand amazed that there are those who reject just about everything in the unbiblical church system, except that aspect of it. I need the Oncologist, but I also need the family Doctor. However, if the Oncologist was all that was on offer, then I would miss out on a great deal of help and support as I go through the treatment he has, quite correctly, prescribed for me. Likewise, we need academics to help us understand the historical and linguistic background to scripture, but we also need biblical and functioning elders to help show us from their own lives how we apply that truth in the day-to-day world, thereby enabling us to grow in the Lord in practical terms. But whereas there are ‘experts’ who are also biblically qualified to be elders, just as there are doubtless Oncologists who have a good bedside manner, we must never just assume it to be the case in any given instance. I repeat, don’t ever mistake mere biblical knowledge, or the ability to teach it, for spirituality or maturity in the Lord, or think for one moment that going to Seminary could help anyone be a church leader in the biblical sense.

I spoke sometime ago with someone in their early twenties who had from childhood, along with their family, been part of a church that was set up in a way I would wholeheartedly describe as being biblical. Yet having heard me teach on numerous occasions, and having therefore heard me share something of my own weaknesses and struggles with sin through the years, they told me that not once had they ever heard the man the church looked to as an elder and teacher say anything even vaguely of that sort. For years he had taught them objective biblical doctrine, being doubtless all good stuff, yet without ever opening the door of his inner life to those he was teaching, in order that they might know something of his personal struggle with sin and weakness. What a sad and terrible travesty! It is, of course, almost necessarily going to be the case in unbiblical churches, and unbiblical church leaders who shared their sins and weaknesses and struggles with their congregations would virtually be going against their job description as the paid professional experts at being Christians, but one expects better of leaders in so-called biblical churches.

I will end by saying that in my fairly extensive experience of churches that are deliberately set up in order to be what I term ‘biblical’ I have found two types of leadership. It is delightful to be able to report that there are those churches whose elders are truly servant-hearted men, apt to teach, whilst not being actual Bible teachers, who genuinely, openly and sacrificially share their lives with both those in the church and anyone else whom the Lord brings to them. I am sad to say, however, that there are also churches with elders, most of whom having been Seminary trained, who are just recreating unbiblical church leadership in the context of biblical churches, having been recognized as elders virtually by default merely because they were once professional church leaders in unbiblical churches. They are fine at teaching, organizing, correcting others and generally keeping the plebs in order, but when it comes to personal relationships they are at a loss, remaining closed to others on a personal level and aloof, as their Seminary training fundamentally taught them to be. I have co-labored with numerous such men and have found them to be nice people, but to also be men who, although they teach the right things – consensus, collective decision-making, servant leadership etc – also very quickly play the Seminary degree card in order to trump others whenever things aren’t going as they would wish. Though saying they believe in consensus, they nevertheless expect to have the last word and to be deferred to because their Seminary training makes them assume they always know best because of it. But of course such will almost inevitably happen when men who can teach get mistakenly recognized as elders merely because of that fact, even though they are not otherwise biblically qualified, as their spiritual arrogance so clearly testifies.

I am also delighted to say, however, that I know of others in biblical churches who were once paid professional church leaders in unbiblical ones, and who have all the proprietary degrees and theological pedigree who, whilst usefully bringing such expert knowledge of scripture as they have acquired to bear upon the biblical churches they have now founded, do so with apologies and repentance that they were once actually paid to procreate the very unbiblical church system they have now rejected. And that is precisely how it should be, and it has heartened me greatly to see that it is indeed perfectly possible for ex-professional pastors and Seminary trained theological ‘experts’ to make the transition into biblical church life and leadership. They have embraced, and practice, genuine servant-heart consensual leadership, thereby having escaped the trap of just turning the churches they have founded into mere ‘house church’ versions of unbiblical ones. ‘Southern Baptist Church in a house!’ as a friend of mine once put it having visited a house church I was myself very familiar with. And precisely because I am familiar as familiar as I am with the church in question, I agree with him completely.

So yes, I am grateful to the Lord beyond words for my dear old uncommunicative, but medically brilliant, Oncologist, and for his dedicated learning and study over many years which enables him to prescribe the drug most likely to render me cancer free. But I am thankful too for our Family Doctor who compliments him by helping me to actually get through, and survive, the treatment the Oncologist has prescribed for me, in practical terms. I need them both, but it only works when I don’t get them mixed up. And so must it be concerning church life, and with following the Lord and growing in our understanding of scripture. We need the experts, the linguists, the biblical historians, and yes, even the theologians. Of course we do! But we need elders too, and the danger is to mistake the one for the other. That a theological ‘expert’ can also be a biblically qualified elder has already been acknowledged, and I am privileged to both fellowship and co-labor with such men, but it is ill advised in the extreme to ever simply assume that such is the case.