Some 1800 years after Tertullian of Carthage wrote these words about Christian martyrdom at the time of Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, his prophetic utterance comes to mind at the news that radical Muslims murdered 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on the same north African coast not 750 miles from Tertullian’s home. It is a sad reminder of the horrid conquest by Islam of the once thriving and dominant intellectual center of Christianity in North Africa. Pope Francis’ words were right. We, too, stand with all martyrs and confessors of Jesus, no matter what Christian church or confession. These men died with the words, “Jesus, help us!” on their lips. That is the fundamental confession of a genuine faith. We mourn with the Coptic community, not only in Egypt and North Africa, but here in the United States.
As Christians, we plead in prayer for secular leaders everywhere, and certainly for our own. We also plead in prayer for our brothers and sisters in the faith all over the globe, and particularly in the morass of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, Nigeria, and wherever else the irrationality of radical Islam and Islamic states threatens the lives of not only Christians, but also Jews and of anyone who dares to contradict the dictates of their insanity. As Christians we know Tertullian’s words are true. We know that, in the divine plan of the suffering and cross of Christ, the victory belongs to Christ. We know that martyrdom is the normal course of Christianity (Luke 21:12). “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9–10). Even as we know the Lord’s recompense must come, we will continue to pray for the souls of those who are possessed of the devilish delusion that such murderous action is pleasing to God. “Pray for those who persecute you,” is a mandate of the Savior (Matt. 5:44).
We also stand and bear witness to the genius of Luther’s two-kingdom doctrine. Religion and government are distinct. “Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts to hold property . . .” (Augsburg Confession XVI 1–2). “The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XVI 58). “Therefore the two governments, the spiritual and secular, should not be mingled or confused” (Augsburg Confession XVIII 12). Governments do not possess authority over the mind and heart, and certainly not faith. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). We seek no Christian government per se. We seek governments that recognize the basic and universal dignity of all people, the right of free speech for all people, and the right of freedom of faith and worship for all people and all religions. Such freedom guarantees the free course of the Gospel. Islam’s “one-kingdom” dogma—that is, that state and religion are one—is a gross confusion of what God has determined ought be distinct and separate, and it threatens not only Christianity but free intellectual discourse as well as the rational functioning of the state in carrying out its divinely mandated and rationally determined functions. The state exists for the protection of life, property, and freedom. The governing authorities, according to the Bible, “do not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). No soldier or government official is criticized for his vocation per se in the New Testament (Luke 3:14). Governments are to punish evil and wage just war. Wanton violation of the rights of Christians, and any and all citizens in this world, demands the recompense of legitimate authority.
By all accounts, Christianity in America is following the path it has taken in Europe. Luther, whose death we commemorate today (February 18), prophesied that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower, which comes for a time and then leaves. He correctly foretold that after a time in Germany, the Gospel would leave, and they would have Islam. That is coming true today, even as many German Muslims are converting to Christianity. The reason the Gospel passes away, according to Luther? Thanklessness (Luther’s Works, 23:261).
On this Ash Wednesday, and during this Lententide, may the horrid events of the past days in Libya and beyond, remind us of what a precious treasure the Gospel is and the freedom to believe and act upon it as we see fit. Lord, have mercy upon us, and grant us ever thankful hearts.
Matthew C. Harrison
February 18, 2015
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today is Ash Wednesday, when the Church begins her slow and measured journey to the cross, where we see Jesus: the Savior who hangs — bloodied and scourged — for us. It is a time of reflection and repentance for me and also for you, for all of us as the LCMS, and for the Church throughout the world.
And yet in the midst of our dusty Lenten ashes, we also look forward to Easter, when our Lord is raised from the dead, triumphing over sin and Satan, all for us. Yes, even during our Lenten fast, joy abounds!
That’s why I want to share two important things with you, so that you may see and know that our Lord is at work in and among each one of us, and is using us collectively as the LCMS to bear witness to Him.
First, our Synod treasurer, Jerry Wulf, shared at our Board of Directors meeting last weekend that together as the Synod we have reduced internal borrowing of restricted funds to cash flow operations from some $16 million four years ago to zero. You read that correctly. Zero! And we’re not stopping there. To get our financial house in order, we have also achieved a three-month cash reserve for operations, which is the minimum for a responsible non-profit.
Second, I’m delighted to announce that we are closing in on doubling the number of career missionaries internationally, which is a goal set by the Synod in convention in 2013. We are working to find a measured pace that will ensure that a sound system of missionary care remains in place but, by God’s grace, will also enable us to continue to add men and women, lay and clergy, to our worldwide mission team. The international moment unfolding worldwide before us as the LCMS is truly astounding!
So, thank you. Thank you for taking part in getting our finances in order so that we may be hearty stewards of all our Lord has to give. And thank you for being a part of our church’s mission work, that our fellow members may go to the ends of the earth to bear witness to Christ to those who have not yet heard that they are loved and whole on account of His death and resurrection.
Thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness to God’s Word and to the Lutheran Confessions. Lay people, thank you for loving your pastors. Pastors, thank you for loving your people.
Thank you for living boldly as the baptized children, loved by God, that you are. And thank you for the privilege of serving you. I covet your prayers and promise you mine, this Lenten season and always.
Under the cross,
Pastor Matt Harrison
President, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
Because we know the Gospel of full forgiveness by the blood of Jesus, we also recognize the voice of our Savior in Holy Scripture. “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). Saying “yes” to the Gospel in faith and to His voice in Holy Scripture, we must also say “no” to what is not true and to what the Scriptures reject (Titus 3:10).
At this moment, I would invite all of you to note what you, the church, expect of all members of the Synod, including review panels, and of the Synod’s President. What follows are excerpts showing how our church has put into practice (however imperfectly) the infallible directions of Scripture (including freedom and love).
Note especially the following words about the president’s duties.
(c) [The President] shall call up for review any action by an individual officer, executive, or agency that, in his view, may be in violation of the Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions of the Synod. [LCMS Bylaw 18.104.22.168 c.]
2. It is the President’s duty to see to it that all the aforementioned [officers, employees, individual districts, and district presidents of Synod] act in accordance with the Synod’s Constitution, to admonish all who in any way depart from it, and, if such admonition is not heeded, to report such cases to the Synod.
3. The President has and always shall have the power to advise, admonish, and reprove. He shall conscientiously use all means at his command to promote and maintain unity of doctrine and practice in all the districts of the Synod. [LCMS Constitution, Article XI, B. Duties of the President]
Note also that the bylaw on “dissent” from the doctrine of Synod does not grant any church worker the right to teach contrary to the Synod’s public doctrine.
1.8.1 While retaining the right of brotherly dissent, members of the Synod are expected as part of the life together within the fellowship of the Synod to honor and uphold the resolutions of the Synod.
1.8.2 Dissent from doctrinal resolutions and statements is to be expressed first within the fellowship of peers and then brought to the attention of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations before finding expression as an overture to the convention calling for revision or recision. While the conscience of the dissenter shall be respected, the consciences of others, as well as the collective will of the Synod, shall also be respected. [LCMS Bylaws]
What follows, for your study and consideration, are the pertinent words from our Synod’s Constitution and Bylaws, as they appear within their larger context.
LCMS Constitution, Article II (Confession)
The Synod, and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation:
- The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice;
- All the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God, to wit: the three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, the Large Catechism of Luther, the Small Catechism of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.
LCMS Constitution, Article III (Objectives of Synod)
The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall—
- Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith (Eph. 4:3–6; 1 Cor. 1:10), work through its official structure toward fellowship with other Christian church bodies, and provide a united defense against schism, sectarianism (Rom. 16:17), and heresy;
- Strengthen congregations and their members in giving bold witness by word and deed to the love and work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and extend that Gospel witness into all the world;
- Recruit and train pastors, teachers, and other professional church workers and provide opportunity for their continuing growth;
- Provide opportunities through which its members may express their Christian concern, love, and compassion in meeting human needs;
- Aid congregations to develop processes of thorough Christian education and nurture and to establish agencies of Christian education such as elementary and secondary schools and to support synodical colleges, universities, and seminaries;
- Aid congregations by providing a variety of resources and opportunities for recognizing, promoting, expressing, conserving, and defending their confessional unity in the true faith;
- Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice, but also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith;
- Provide evangelical supervision, counsel, and care for pastors, teachers, and other professional church workers of the Synod in the performance of their official duties;
- Provide protection for congregations, pastors, teachers, and other church workers in the performance of their official duties and the maintenance of their rights;
- Aid in providing for the welfare of pastors, teachers, and other church workers, and their families, in the event of illness, disability, retirement, special need, or death.
LCMS Constitution, Article VI (Conditions of Membership)
Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following:
1. Acceptance of the confessional basis of Article II.
2. Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as:
a. Serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church;
b. Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession;
c. Participating in heterodox tract and missionary activities.
3. Regular call of pastors, teachers, directors of Christian education, directors of Christian outreach, directors of family life ministry, directors of parish music, deaconesses, certified lay ministers, and parish assistants and regular election of lay delegates by the congregations, as also the blamelessness of the life of such.
4. Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school.
5. A congregation shall be received into membership only after the Synod has convinced itself that the constitution of the congregation, which must be submitted for examination, contains nothing contrary to the Scriptures or the Confessions.
6. Pastors, teachers, directors of Christian education, directors of Christian outreach, directors of family life ministry, directors of parish music, deaconesses, certified lay ministers, or candidates for these offices not coming from recognized orthodox church bodies must submit to a colloquium before being received.
7. Congregations and individuals shall be received into membership at such time and manner, and according to such procedures, as shall be set forth in the bylaws to this Constitution.
LCMS Constitution, Article XIII (Expulsion from the Synod)
- Members who act contrary to the confession laid down in Article II and to the conditions of membership laid down in Article VI or persist in an offensive conduct, shall, after previous futile admonition, be expelled from the Synod.
LCMS Constitution, Article XI. B. (Duties of the President)
The President has the supervision regarding the doctrine and the administration of
a. All officers of the Synod;
b. All such as are employed by the Synod;
c. The individual districts of the Synod;
d. All district presidents.
- It is the President’s duty to see to it that all the aforementioned act in accordance with the Synod’s Constitution, to admonish all who in any way depart from it, and, if such admonition is not heeded, to report such cases to the Synod.
- The President has and always shall have the power to advise, admonish, and reprove. He shall conscientiously use all means at his command to promote and maintain unity of doctrine and practice in all the districts of the Synod.
- The President shall see to it that the resolutions of the Synod are carried out.
- When the Synod meets in convention the President shall give a report of his administration. He shall conduct the sessions of the convention so that all things are done in a Christian manner and in accord with the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod….
LCMS Bylaws on the Duties of the President
22.214.171.124 The President shall oversee the activities of all officers, executives, and agencies of the Synod to see to it that they are acting in accordance with the Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions of the Synod.
(a) He shall at regular intervals officially visit or cause to be visited all the educational institutions of the Synod and thereby exercise oversight over their administration as it relates to adherence to the Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions of the Synod.
(b) He shall meet regularly with the Council of Presidents and, as deemed necessary, with individual district presidents or small groups of district presidents, to see to it that their administration is in accordance with the Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions of the Synod. He shall receive regular reports on this subject from the district presidents.
(c) He shall call up for review any action by an individual officer, executive, or agency that, in his view, may be in violation of the Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions of the Synod.
(1) If he deems appropriate, he shall request that such action be altered or reversed.
(2) If the matter cannot be resolved, he shall refer it to the Synod’s Board of Directors, the Commission on Constitutional Matters, and/or the Synod in convention as he deems appropriate to the issues and party/parties to the matter involved.
(3) This provision in no way alters the President’s constitutional duty to report to the Synod those who do not act in accordance with the Constitution and do not heed his admonition, as prescribed in Constitution Art. XI B 2.
“How ya doing?” I’ve been getting that question a great deal lately for some reason. And my response is almost always the same: “I’m doing marvelously. Truly blessed.” And I am. It’s a small handful who have some idea of what it’s like to be president of the LCMS. Four of them are living and breathing on this earth. The LCMS is a very large organization. Its operations and internal relationships are carefully (not perfectly!) governed by its constitution and bylaws. These documents are an imperfect, human attempt of a church body with a confession to govern itself according to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. I’ve often quipped that some historical critic needs to do a formgeschichtliche analysis of the bylaws of the Missouri Synod, which would demonstrate the history and polarities at the time of their convention adoption. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that ostensible reasons for their adoption were only half the real story of what was going on behind the scenes. I’ve tried to be honest about what I’m for and why, and will continue to do so.
What’s it like to be president of this great, often unwieldy, church body? First, it’s an enormously humbling reality. It takes a daily emotional, spiritual and physical stamina that pushes one to the limits and beyond. But I must be quick to add, I feel little different than I did struggling with challenging situations in my first little parish in Westgate, Iowa 25 years ago. Whether a portion of the locals are riled up over a pastor’s practice of close(d) communion, or detractors are trying to make national political hay and stir up opposition out of some issue, the stress level is virtually the same. The LCMS is just one big congregation. No pastor can please everyone. I approach all issues pastorally. I am to the core of my being a pastor. I try not to act rashly. I almost never act without some significant forethought and counsel. When I have or do, I make mistakes. When I make mistakes, I own them and apologize for them. Mistakes in this life are inevitable. I am not Jesus. To act pastorally means that change takes time and teaching. I have not been able to teach as much as I had preferred but I am taking steps to change this.
When I moved into the president’s office in the LCMS International Center, I moved most of my books and belongings myself. IC staff were distressed seeing this on several occasions, but I reassured them that I was doing this quite by intention. Some day I and all my books and “stuff” will be rolled out of that office, and it will be quite okay. God is the one carrying the Missouri Synod, and more often in spite of us and through us! And I don’t need to be president of the LCMS to be Matt Harrison. At some point the LCMS will get along quite famously without yours truly.
Joys abound, truly. I love what I do. I am thrilled that we are approaching the doubling the number of called international missionaries. And we won’t stop there. We may have to slow a bit in a few months, to make sure our systems of missionary care are in place, but Lord willing, we will continue to add men and women, lay and clergy, to our worldwide mission team. If our Synod actually focuses on this international work, giving it some priority or simply equal status with all the other mission trips and the dozens if not hundreds of other organizations our congregations support (some good, some less so), we can blow the lid off our all-time-high missionary number. A shout out to the LWML for providing so much help financially, as well as prayers and encouragement, and to CPH for being a marvelous partner in mission.
Since four years ago, we have reduced staffing in the IC by 70. Today we are doing more with less. I am thrilled with what is coming from the Office of National Mission. We are full steam ahead in developing the resources, training etc., for a large national effort at rejuvenating congregations (locally led) and evangelizing the communities around us. We have commissioned the most extensive demographic studies ever done on the LCMS in order to gain a precise understanding of our context(s) and how best to respond to our domestic challenges. I am enjoying this to the hilt. A very significant evangelism tool is now being developed which will help unleash the infinite potential of our marvelous laymen and women. Keep your eyes on Bart Day and the ONM!
Finances are always a challenge, but have also been a blessing. We’ve had the smallest reductions in unrestricted (plate to district to Synod) funding in decades. Thank you!
The Synod will continue to struggle with issues of doctrine and practice. Given the tumultuous events of the 1960s and 70s, it’s frankly amazing we are as united as we are. And things will become calmer still as 1974 fades into the past. I believe a consensus is emerging on issues of worship (though challenges remain to be sure). The penetration of LSB in nearly 90% of our congregations is a great sign. There is a consensus emerging, too, that while specific musical instrumentation is not commanded or forbidden, and a range of music may be acceptable (with appropriate Christological, sacramental provisos), the ordo (order) of the divine service should not be messed with. Confession and Absolution should not be ditched. The Creed should not be altered. The Lord’s Words of Institution are his, not ours to do with as we please. And we must have improved and improving preaching (more on that soon). If one speaks to a number of men involved in local Koinonia Project discussions, one will find that some amazing and stuff is quietly going on. We are at the tip of a new culture where we humbly discuss our differences, seeking truth in Christ and his Word. God help us. We have a long way to go.
Two years ago I requested of the CTCR a document to assist congregations in evaluating and improving their communion statements. We will release that very soon. We all recognize that there is “pastoral discretion” in communion practice—that is, discretion in communing individuals from time to time who, for a variety of reasons, may not be official members of an LCMS congregation or that of one of our partner churches. However, explaining our Lutheran teaching in a bulletin statement and then inviting all who believe this to commune without respect to church affiliation is not consistent with the stated and re-stated position of the Synod. I invite you to read, for instance, Dr. Walther’s, The Church and the Office of the Ministry, especially Thesis VIII on the Church. This is the official doctrinal statement of the Synod. I have been encouraging District Presidents and pastors/congregations to make sure their communion statements at the least require a person to speak with a pastor or elder prior to communing.
Since the restructuring of the Synod, narrowly adopted in 2010 (which I had opposed, ironically), the president has had responsibility for some $50 million worth of personnel and program. That on top of our aggressive effort to seriously visit every district headquarters, board of directors, staff, and circuit counselors forum, has meant that staff is stretched. But it’s good. The visitations have really allowed me and our regional VPs to get to know local challenges and people. What great folks we have! Daily we struggle with schedules. I have to turn down 98% of preaching/speaking requests. But we laugh daily. We laugh at ourselves. We laugh at the “crazy stuff” in Synod at times. And we marvel at the blessings all around.
The international moment unfolding worldwide for the LCMS is astounding, and I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice it to say, requests for our faithful seminary profs and other assistance are expanding exponentially. Lord, help us! Dr. Collver has so many requests from church bodies around the world he can’t even keep track of himself!
What is absolutely necessary for us is to continue to get our house in order. We have reduced internal borrowing for operations from some $16 million four years ago to just over $4 million today. We must get to zero. And we have achieved a three-month cash reserve for operations, the minimum for a responsible non-profit. We must revise our system of ecclesiastical supervision and adjudication. A church that holds to the inerrant scriptures and a quia subscription to the Book of Concord, cannot have public teachers for decade after decade openly rejecting the church’s teachings and or acting against them. There are church bodies where women are pastors, the Bible is not regarded as infallible, sexual preferences are optional, etc. etc. But this is not the LCMS, and to the extent I have anything to say about it, won’t be the LCMS. We must come to reasonable resolution of the issue of licensed lay deacons that has caused so very much dissention among us. Larry Vogel of the CTCR and a small task force have been working very hard on this issue, and there is light breaking at the end of the tunnel.
Well, this little communication written on a cold morning from Bread Co. in Ballwin, Missouri during the early hours of a day off, has gone on long enough.
Thank you! Thank you for your fidelity! Thank you for loving your pastors and people! Thank you for generosity! Thank you for the privilege of serving you!
I covet your prayers, and promise you mine.
Feb. 6, 2015
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.
Want to know the latest thinking on the topic of “excellence”? Amazon is ready to sell you any of 24,637 books on this very subject. “Excellence, “The Pursuit of Excellence,” “In Search of Excellence,” “Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence,” “Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less,” “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” “Who Kidnapped Excellence: What Stops Us from Giving and Being Our Best,” “Achieving Excellence in Fundraising,” “Excellence Beyond Compliance: Enhancing Animal Welfare Through the Constructive Use of the Animal Welfare Act,” “Excellence in Business Communication,” “Let Me Heal: The Opportunity to Preserve Excellence in American Medicine,” “Managing for Quality and Performance Excellence,” “The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Guide to Motorcycling Excellence: Skills, Knowledge, and Strategies,” “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence,” and finally, “The Girls’ Book of Excellence: Even More Ways to be the Best at Everything.” Every one of the books I just named was published between 2004 and the present. What was the spark for all of this interest in excellence? Could it have been our country’s slippage in quality in the automotive and manufacturing sectors? Could it have been the reports that foreign schools were turning out students whose academic achievements were higher than ours? That other countries enjoy a higher standard of living than we do? Whatever the impetus, it seems to have struck a chord among the white collar crowd. But wait, where there’s an emerging trend to be exploited, can Christian authors be far behind? “Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success,” “Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue,” “Spiritual Leadership: A Commitment to Excellence for Every Believer,” “Excellence: Run with the Horses,” “Becoming a Woman of Excellence,” “Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Danger of Perfectionism,” and over 3000 other titles await the Christian who wishes to excel.
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.