In Search of Excellence
The following study was presented at the November LCMS Council of President’s Meeting by The Rev. Terry Cripe, President of the Ohio District, and is commended for your study and consideration.
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On behalf of the program committee, Larry asked me to present a Bible study on the topic of “excellence.” My approach will be first, to ask, “Does the Bible recognize such a thing as ‘excellence,’ or are we talking about a 21st century category in search of a Biblical baptism?” Second, “Are there any over-arching broad categories for judging excellence?” and finally, “Are there any Biblical examples of excellence in ministry?”
Before turning to the Bible, however, let’s look at a definition of “excellence.” In a word, excellence means “superiority.” That word, along with “mediocrity,” and “inferiority,” implies that a judgment can be made about some thing or process. But as with so much of life, the basis for judging something to be superior, mediocre, or inferior lies with the beholder. The Genesis narrative portrays God as the first to render evaluations. God calls the light He created on the first day “good.” The formation of the land and the gathered waters He calls “good” on the third day. The land’s production of vegetation, seed-bearing trees and plants He declares to be good on the same day. The stars, sun, and moon receive the same verdict on the fourth day. The fifth day’s production of sea creatures and birds gets a divine thumbs up. The sixth day’s appearance of land animals and creatures is pronounced good, as well as the creation of man and woman in His image. Then, in summary fashion, Genesis says, “God saw that all He had made was very good.” The same kind of evaluation continues into chapter 2, where the trees and plants of Eden are said to be good for food and pleasing to the eye, thus presenting the idea that the utility of a thing as well as its form are proper categories for evaluation. The gold of Havilah is said to be good. God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone. So in the span of the first two chapters of the Bible, the reader sees that God judges things to be “good” or “very good” according to their essence or according to their purpose. Only one thing God judges to be not good – the man’s condition of solitude. On what basis can He declare this? God can judge that man’s solitary condition is not good on the basis of His own Trinitarian essence. If man has been created in God’s image, it is not good for him to live in a condition that is out of step with that image.
Because we are created in God’s image, humans are also capable of making judgments about what constitutes excellence and what does not. Rendering such a judgment implies that one has been able to reach that conclusion by distinguishing the ordinary from extraordinary, the good from better, or the better from best, based on some criterion or set of criteria. God’s positive judgments about creation would have established a benchmark from which human judgments could flow. The Bible gives many examples of people doing that very thing. “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well-watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar (Genesis 13:10).” Laban says to Jacob concerning Rachel, “It is better to give her to you than to some other man (Gen 29:19).” The leper Naaman asks, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel (2 Kings 5:12)?” In Proverbs Wisdom says, “My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver (Proverbs 8:19).” “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife (Proverbs 17:1).” “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife (Proverbs 19:1).” “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 2:24).” “Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field (Lamentations 4:9).” Daniel says about Nebuchadnezzar, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom (Daniel 1:20).” The prophet Nahum addresses Ninevah rhetorically, “Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall (Nahum 3:8).” In John’s Gospel the master of the wedding banquet comments on the water turned to wine, saying, “you have saved the best till now” (John 2:10b).
The book of Ecclesiastes offers a broad standard of performance excellence in the 10th verse of chapter nine when it says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” A chapter later the reader finds this contrasting observation: “Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.” Taken together, the two passages point to working at a high energy level with a high level of competency. Philippians 4:8 lays out a very nice set of standards by which to evaluate objects and behaviors. Paul writes, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” The word translated as “excellent” is “areth.” In the secular world areth meant “merit,” often understood as meritorious conduct that brought divine approval. (2 Peter 1:5 contains the only other NT usage of the word, where it is translated variously as “goodness,” “moral excellence,” “good character,” and “integrity.”) The unspoken corollary here is that in addition to these positive qualities which the apostle enumerates, there must also be objects and behaviors that are their opposite: that which is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, ugly, and scornful – inferior things unworthy of praise. Because he does not explain what any of these terms mean, Paul assumes his readers understand them and can distinguish between the two broad categories and that it is their duty to do just that in order to focus their attention on the qualities that are superior.
So, to summarize, generally speaking, the recognition of or quest for excellence has been in our makeup from the very beginning. Were you to visit a natural history museum and look at an old bird’s nest and compare it to ones built today, you would find few, if any, improvements. But if you were to compare a human dwelling from the 1800’s with one built today, you would find thousands of improvements. In countless ways, as humans, we strive for excellence. My seventh grade English teacher drilled into us this little ditty: “Good, better, best, may you never rest until your good is better and your better best.” That some will try to make their handiwork or behavior only appear to be excellent, while resorting to lesser quality materials or actions still testifies to an underlying knowledge of the concept of excellence, while also testifying to the corruption which sin has introduced into one’s ability to evaluate.
Now let’s turn our attention to “excellence” in terms of the narrower topic of ministry. Does the Bible have any descriptions of what ministerial excellence looks like? The Old Testament tells us more about the opposite condition. 1 Samuel refers to Eli’s sons literally as “sons of Belial.” That phrase has been translated variously as “scoundrels,” “wicked,” “good-for-nothing,” and “a bad lot.” They earned that judgment by strong-arming those who came to offer sacrifices by demanding the best meat for themselves. Whereas God was supposed to get the fat portions, Phinehas and Hophni demanded for themselves raw meat with the fat intact, certainly a more flavorful combination than the lean boiled meat which was prescribed for the priests as their rightful share. In addition they were carrying on some hanky-panky with the young women who attended to the tent of meeting. Eli confronted them. He asked why they do these evil things and complains that the report about them he has heard circulating among the people is not good. Later the Lord pronounces sentence on Eli’s lineage: all will die in the prime of life. But God then says that He will raise up a faithful priest who will do according to all that is in God’s heart and soul. Reminiscent of what God will tell David later, the Lord promises that He will build this priest an enduring house and that this priest will always walk before the Lord’s anointed. Please note that the word God uses to contrast their behavior is “faithful.” That word will be used again. Eli’s sons’ behavior is faithless because they have not followed the prescribed code of conduct. It is faithless because it was self-serving and opportunistic.
Elsewhere, Ezekiel notes that the “faithful” Zadok priests who did not go astray when the Levites did, will receive a special piece of property (Ezek 48:11). They were judged to be faithful perhaps because when it came time to return from the exile, only 400 Levites came back while over 4000 priests returned. Jeremiah informs us of what God means by calling a prophet “wicked”: “they follow an evil course and use their power unjustly.” The prophets of Samaria “prophesied by Baal and led my people astray,” while among the prophets of Jerusalem there were those who “commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers so that no one turns from his wickedness” (Jer 23:10,13, 14.) In addition, they fill their hearers with false hope, speak visions that come from their own minds, and assure the wicked that no harm will befall them (Jer 23:16-17). So the word “unfaithful” could be used to describe servants of God whose personal life was immoral or whose public teaching or administrative behavior did not conform to the Word but served only to advance themselves.
In the New Testament Paul addresses the matter of excellence in ministry. His overall concept can be found in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Paul has taken up the topic of the Corinthians’ bad behavior of favoring one of two leaders – Paul or Apollos – and the division that has created. So he tries to re-establish unity by saying that both Apollos and he serve the same end even though each has a different task assigned by God. Whether planting or watering, each will be rewarded according to his own labor. Then Paul shifts metaphors and presents a lengthy illustration about workers who build on the foundation that is Christ. It may be his way of saying that excellence comes in more than one form. In the context, these hypothetical workers are ecclesiastical workers just as are Paul and Apollos. As Paul explains, some workers build on the foundation with gold, silver, or costly stones, while others use wood, or even hay or straw. The building materials Paul chooses for his illustration must fit the consequences which Paul knows the Day of Judgment will bring. The Judge’s fire will test the quality, or excellence, of each material which the builder used. So Paul needs three substances he knows to be valuable and fire resistant, and three materials he knows to be of lesser value and combustible. The genius of Paul here is that he separates sanctification from justification. Every builder may not use excellent materials, but since he builds on the foundation that is Christ, he will be saved through his faith. His reward for his labors will be forfeited, but not his place in the kingdom. The man who builds with lesser quality material will be saved as though he runs through a blazing fire but escapes with his life. It is important to understand that these workers are not the same as those whom God judges to be wicked or faithless. Those build on a different foundation altogether. We’ll now turn to Paul’s pastoral epistles where he will address the topic of excellence in a more specific fashion.
In those three letters, the word kaloS appears twenty-four times, as compared to sixteen times in the other ten Pauline letters. Twenty of those times it is an adjective. The word as used in the Pastorals does not always connote that which is morally good, as in “good works.” While the reputation that overseers are to have is to be “good” in the moral sense, there are instances where kaloS describes the quality of their work: that which is excellent, orderly, and right. In the Old Testament kaloS is used in this way only with respect to God’s judgment on his creation and so could be translated, “God saw that it was well done.” Used in this way, one might say a pastor’s sermon was kaloS if he used appropriate gestures, made good eye contact, varied the pitch of his voice, organized his message in an appropriate fashion. So “a deacon must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 3:12-13).” Another passage to consider is this one: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17).” Here also one could understand the adverbial form, kalwS as that which is done well. The other place where kaloS is translated as “excellent” is found in his letter to Titus. “This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone (Titus 3:8).” The things that are “excellent” are the instructions which Paul has given up to this point. Then there is this from Paul to Titus: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7-8). If doing what is good is defined by what follows, “integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech,” then the connotation of kaloS is that which is morally good. Finally, to Timothy Paul writes, “If you point these things out (various false teachings) to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith of the good teaching that you have followed (1 Timothy 4:6).” Here, both uses of “good” connote the substance, not the style which was used to warn.
I would add one more passage, even though the word “excellent” is not present: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).” Surely the concept of “excellence” is not far from the author’s mind even though the word does not appear. But if the expectation of excellence is not present, how would one be judged more strictly?
Are there other places in Scripture that speak to excellence with regard to ministry? Let’s turn to the Gospels, the little parable Jesus tells in Matthew 24 beginning with verse 45. It is set in the framework of speculation about Jesus’ return. It is part of the answer to the disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” The parable speaks to our issue when it talks first about the faithful and sensible servant who receives commendation from his master. How is his faithfulness and sensibility measured? He is one who has continued to feed the rest of the household at the proper time even though his master has not returned when expected. As a reward for his faithful service in the master’s absence, the master will make him ruler of all his goods. On the other hand, should that servant beat his fellow servants and eat and drink with drunkards, he would earn for himself the judgment of “wicked,” or kakoS. He is wicked because the master’s delay influenced how he did his work, not loyalty to the master. As long as he thought the master might return soon, he did what had been commanded. But as soon as the expectation of the master’s timely return subsided, his true nature surfaced. He takes for himself a disproportionate amount of the food and drink that he was to apportion among the other servants, showing that he intended to serve only himself. For his mismanagement he receives a severe punishment. He is cut to pieces and assigned his portion with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Luke’s version in chapter 12, Jesus tells the parable in response to a question from Peter about the previous parable that urged watchfulness on the part of the household servants. He asks, “Are you telling this parable to us or to everyone?” Jesus’ answer focuses on the “faithful and wise manager” (oikonomos), used by Paul to describe his role, and elsewhere used for overseers.
The matter also shows up a chapter later in the Parable of the Talents. Jesus is still talking on the same theme – that of his return. Again we have the image of the household. Again we have the owner leaving the estate for an undetermined amount of time, although Jesus does say later that the master did return, albeit only after a lengthy absence. Again, work was given to certain servants. When the owner returns, his “well done” commendation is given to those servants who did business with what he had given them, no matter what the principal amount was. The third servant is called ponhre kai oknhre, ”wicked and lazy,” because he did absolutely nothing with the talent that was given to him except bury it. Now it is important to note that the commendation to the first two is “well done,” followed by the descriptors “good and faithful servant.” What made each of them good and faithful? They did what he told them to do – each used what had been entrusted to him with which to do business. They had their master’s interests uppermost, not their own. Capital was given to them to invest and they invested it. Now the interesting thing is this: none of the three came back and said, “You gave me three, I lost two,” or “You gave me five, I am returning only 4 because the market dropped.” No. If they put the capital to work, it earned a return that pleased the Master. That’s an important feature applicable to the ministry of the Word and calls to mind that promise from Isaiah, “My Word will not return to me void.” The only loser is the one who did nothing with what was entrusted to him. That the amount of return wasn’t the important thing can be seen by the master’s words to the wicked servant. “The least you could have done was put it in the bank so it would have earned interest there.” That servant, now called “worthless,” is tossed into utter darkness with the standard “weeping and gnashing of teeth” descriptors following. Now it is vital to understand what has happened here. Viewed from a peasant’s worldview, the master’s judgment is shocking. For the last servant was only following the conventional wisdom of the day. In fact, rabbis commended the very behavior which the master condemned. From the peasant perspective, capital is limited. One’s resources are too precious to chance losing by investing, especially if they are not your own. Furthermore, if the pool of capital is limited, then what I am gaining is suspect because it comes at the expense of someone else’s loss. The master’s response, taking the talent from him and giving it to the one who already had ten, well, that is just obscene when viewed from a peasant worldview that imagined a limited supply of wealth. “He already has ten talents! Why does he need more?”
Luke’s Gospel contains a different version of the parable of the talents. The occasion for this version is Zacchaeus’ repentance, Jesus’ drawing near to Jerusalem, and the people’s expectation that God’s kingdom would manifest itself very soon, a belief that was perhaps even encouraged by the almost miraculous financial about-face which Zacchaeus did. If they thought Zacchaeus’ behavior was contrary to common wisdom, what would they think of servants who went against the common wisdom of preserving their own necks, and instead, took investment risks for the master, and were rewarded way out of proportion to the risks they took! From the man-on-the-street’s perspective, the extravagant reward to these servants only confirms the worthless servant’s opinion of the master – he’s a tough guy who is unsympathetic to cautious but self-serving behavior.
Now this parable both as it appears in Matthew and as it appears in Luke reveals a key to understanding pastoral behavior that is less than excellent. In both cases, the third servant said that he behaved as he did out of fear of his master. Fear paralyzed him into falling back on conventional wisdom. Whereas true fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, his fear led him to behave foolishly and justify his bad behavior on a decidedly law-oriented view of the master. So if you are going to view the master in strict fashion, he will be only too happy to accommodate you and judge you that very way. On the other hand, the same parables give encouragement to those servants who have confidence that what the master has given them will produce a return if put to work.
The parables and St Paul’s illustration all speak of an eschatological judgment on servants rendered by the Master. What about human judging or evaluating prior to that Day? If we see servants underperforming, are we to remain silent because judgment is reserved only for the great day? St Paul will tell the Corinthians, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I don’t even judge myself…It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes.” Perhaps you have heard pastors quote these words to discourage any evaluation of their work (although many of them have no qualms about judging our work). Does this mean we have no role to play as overseers? Let me finish what Paul says: “…wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” So what Paul is cautioning against is judging motives which cannot otherwise be known, not actions which are plain to see. God criticized Eli for seeing his sons’ faithless behavior and doing nothing about it. Paul was certainly not silent in his criticisms of the so-called “superior apostles” or the Judaizers. Accordingly, we have a duty to warn and to encourage workers to set aside any fear that causes them to follow conventional self-serving paths while the Master expects his servants to engage in business and so take risks. But our texts also raise a cautionary note. The servants were given differing amounts with which to trade. Paul listed three excellent building materials which could be used, all of which tells me that there is a latitude as to how excellence can be measured, and that it is measured according to each worker’s ability.
So it is safe to say that there is an expectation of excellence in connection with pastoral work. But what is that pastoral work that is subject to evaluation? Building on the foundation that is Christ with valuable materials, feeding household servants their allotted food and drink at the proper time, investing the masters’ goods so as to earn a return for him – what do these mean in non-metaphorical terms? We have some clues when Paul says that well-done preaching and teaching is worth double honor, and obviously this goes beyond Sunday morning preaching and teaching activity but applies in any opportunity to administer the Word. Pointing out the errors of false teachers would also be approved conduct. Both feeding the sheep and warning them of spiritual dangers are the works that make up the substance of what it means to be a shepherd of the flock, as Paul tells the elders in Acts 20. Managing the affairs of the congregation well is to be recognized, too, ambiguous as that may seem. But warnings about lording it over the flock and other self-serving behaviors tell us that content is not the only thing one might strive for excellence.
How does one motivate another to serve with excellence? As Luther says in his explanation of the commandments, “We are to fear and love God,” so it goes with excellence. The Scriptures warn against misbehavior and misbehavior includes sloth. Overseers have the duty to give warning to those whose behavior is wanting either in the substance of what they preach and teach or in the way in which they handle what’s been entrusted to them. Punishments will be administered to the deserving on the Last day, the wicked being denied any inheritance on account of their faithlessness, while builders using low quality material lose only their reward. But Scripture also sets before us the promise of reward for those whose ministry is excellent and Christlike in that it does not serve self but gives itself for the benefit of others. Overseers do well to remind servants of the extravagant grace which the Master will offer even to those who give another a cup of cold water in his name.
 Bauerenfeind, Theological Dictionary of the NewTestament, vol 1, areth. (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans), pg 460
 Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel: The Glory of the Lord (Chicago: Mood Press, 1969), p 277
 Kalos, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol III. (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1968) p 549.
 Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p 149.
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