Peter Witkowski is the senior pastor of Amissville Baptist Church (ABC) located at the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains in Northern Virginia. Peter earned his Master of Divinity Degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2012. Seeking to put his theology into action, he became a certified member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) in 2016. Peter is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to his best friend, April. Together, they are raising three young children.
Churches often crumble into ruin because their members engage in king-making. Though some evangelicals show up at the polls every 4 years, their greatest power rests not in the public square but underneath the steeple spire. Here with the help of Jesus, church members elevate men and women to positions of authority, granting them the power to determine church policy, remove members, and allocate funds. With fifteen minutes, a clerk, and a few votes by acclamation, churches can turn just about anyone into an evangelical power broker. Churches appoint elders, deacons, and ministry leaders. They make evangelical kings, if you will.
Why Things Go Wrong
Though common, such thinking runs counter to teaching of Scripture. The Church is the Lord’s; it is not the congregation’s nor the denomination’s property. In Mathew 18:16b, Jesus proclaims, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus, the head of the church, builds the church. Faithful church leaders acknowledge his authority, teaching and following the commands of Jesus as found in the Scriptures. Most churches nominally agree with this description.
But when deciding who to elect or who to appoint to the church office, the churches often attempt to transform ordinary members into extraordinary leaders. When the church family needs a willing or somewhat willing candidate, it sends the guy through a 6-week elder class or it lays hands on the soul, hoping that the wisdom of the other deacons will rub off on him. In so doing, the congregation often places men into leadership whose greatest qualifications consist of popularity, money, or a lengthy tenure on the church role. Sunday school classes also fall victim to such thinking. Such appointments prove dangerous as they give men and women the keys to the church who lack the character to exercise that authority responsibly.
God has a much better plan.
In Micah 6:4, the prophet reminds the Israelites that God had appointed, “Moses, Aron, and Miriam,” to lead his people. The God who created the church provides each local church with the leaders it needs. Ephesians 4:11-12 declares
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
No congregation should create elders and deacons or Sunday School teachers. Rather it should find them.
The process of creating church officers more closely remembers a search for Waldo than political election campaign or pickup game of kickball. Churches need to find the elders, deacons, and ministry leaders that God has divinely placed in the middle of the church family. As Richard Baxter noted in 1658 “God gives the qualifications which he requires…all that the church has to do…is discern and determine which are the men God has…qualified.” God gives us a divine description of who to look for. Paul tells Titus to appoint men who are “above reproach (Titus 1:6).” Those called to be elders should be above the charges of drunkenness, poor stewardship, greed, violence, exemplifying hospitality goodness, self-control, holiness, uprightness, and discipline (7-8). The elder qualified man must also be able to teach well. Similar qualifications are given for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. God also blesses the church with godly older women who are gifted to “teach what is good (Titus 2:3-4).”
The church does not make men and women above reproach or gift them the Holy Spirit. Instead, the local church vets and examines men to see to see if they are qualified to be deacons and elders. It also looks at the character of women to discern if they should serve the church teaching the younger women in their midst. Then when the church finds a man or women who has been serving faithfully, they recognize the service that exists and appoint that person to the appropriate leadership role. In short, the church does not make a man an elder. It bestows the title and privileges of eldership upon the man who is already serving as an elder, counseling, teaching, and serving the churcn. When the men circle the stage to lay hands on their brother, they are not transferring the Holy Spirit to him. They are recognizing that the Holy Spirit is in him and has prepared him to serve the church.
The church does not make kings. It discovers servants who have already been appointed by God to serve.
I read books much like Sam from the iconic Green Eggs and Ham who could eat the green stuff here and there. I can read pretty much everywhere. In 2020, I have read books in a plane and on a train. I’ve read them within a car and in hotels from afar. And I would read them with my wife and with PhD students who play the fife. In short, I do so like good books. I hope you too will try a good book or two soon. Below are the four tastiest volumes that I read in 2020.
If you feel the urge to stop reading this post, finding books scary, I encourage you to stay with me for another minute or two. Investigate the books below. Though you may not like books much today, I encourage you to heed the advice of Sam-I-Am who profoundly said, “Try them! Try them! And you may.
I began the year unaware of this book. But a pandemic and a well-timed tweet by my fellow PhD. student John Blackman later, the book became my favorite volume of 2020.
When the Coronavirus swept across our shores, I found myself completely unprepared for the virus. I did not know how to think about a virus. My grandparent’s stories which dipped into the 1920s knew nothing of pandemics or plagues. Barry’s book provides the historical context that I needed to make sense of these times. In the 546-page book that reads like a novel, the author traces the conflict that erupts as scientists seek to conquer the mysterious and every changing world of microbes that are killing thousands. As the story flows from rural Kansas, to France, and then back to urban New York and to a host of other locations, Barry clarifies many misconceptions that have distorted our understanding of the Spanish Flu, the benefits of epidemiology, and the power of modern medicine. He also draws connections between the 1918 pandemic and other medical crises such as Polio and the Swine Flu, noting both the advances of modern medicine and its frustrating limits. Modern medicine still fails to definitively answer our questions. Barry notes, “They knew so little. So little. They knew only isolation worked.”
At times, Barry’s own biases bleed into the story. But his biases against Christianity do not impede his overarching commitment to leave no stone unturned. He examines Presidential files, small town newspapers, and private correspondence. The research that produced this book has captured the attention of Presidents on both sides of the political spectrum. I would encourage you to listen to Barry as well.
And they lied for the war effort, for the propaganda machine Wilson had created. It is impossible to quantify how many deaths the lies caused. It is impossible to quantify how many young men died because the army refused to follow the advice of its own surgeon general. But while those in authority were reassuring people that this was influenza, only influenza, nothing different from ordinary “la grippe” at least some people must have believed them, at least some people must have exposed themselves to the virus in ways they would not have otherwise, and at least some of those people must have died who would otherwise have lived.
As the world around him descended into darkness, J.C. Ryle remained fixed to the light of Christ. In the space of 273 pages, historian Iain Murray chronicles the life and discusses the theology of one of the greatest British theologians of the nineteenth century. Ryle overcame his nominal Christian roots and was transformed into the famous grace inspired pastor we know today because of his single-minded devotion to Christ. Murry writes, “The gospel itself was ever the most important part of whatever he spoke or wrote, and the gospel meant the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (133).” He clung to it when his wives died, when the Church of England drifted from the truth, and when his son wrote off the historic Christian faith as being archaic. Through all the disappointments, criticisms, and sorrows, Ryle rested happily upon the rock of Jesus Christ, extending love to friend and foe alike. One contemporary described Ryle as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” Though the church of England sank into liberalism, Ryle’s ministry bore great evangelical fruit. He opened 44 new churches and installed more than 100 new clergy in his diocese. The relevance Ryle’s son, Herbert, sought through theological innovation, J.C. Ryle achieved through the proclamation of the historic faith. Murray’s work is a valuable and encouraging read.
Faced with difficulties of many kinds, Ryle had no doubt where his priorities lay: ‘my first and foremost business, as Bishop of a new Diocese, is to provide for preaching of the Gospel to souls now entirely neglected’…From the time of his conversion he had believed that nominal Christianity – ‘churchianity’ without personal experience of Christ – was ‘the greatest defect of the Christianity of our times.’
Using only 192 small pages, Holcom accomplishes the herculean task of providing his readers with helpful introductions to more than thirteen creeds and doctrinal statements. Each of his chapters chronicles the historical background, the content, and the relevance of documents such as the Apostle’s creed, the Council of Trent, and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. At the end of each chapter, the author provides his readers with discussion questions and a list of books for further study, making this the perfect book for both the pastor and the lay person. Though no book of this size could comprehensively deal with every issue tied to these documents, Holcom provides his readers with a meaningful introduction to those movements that both indirectly and directly shape their theological practice. For example, he details Nicaea which solidified the church’s understanding of Jesus and the Council of Trent which explains why protestants cannot rejoin the Catholic Church. Though Jesus’s church does not need councils and theological documents to be the church, these statements prove to be more helpful than most Christians realize. Holcom writes, “Creeds aren’t dogmas that are imposed on Scripture but are themselves drawn from the Bible and provide a touchstone to the faith for Christians of all times and places.”
The fact that Christianity developed – that the sixteenth century, for instance, looked very different from the third, and that both looked very different from the twenty-first – can sometimes lead us to wonder what the essential core of Christianity is. As a result, some people decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct “real Christianity” with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that the Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity – the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more – with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly.
The sweetness of Thomas Goodwin’s 1651 book has become all the fuller with age. Instead of being driven to the edge of irrelevance by the busyness of the modern world, Goodwin’s exposition of God’s love for his people proves to be acutely applicable to our day. The first part of the book reveals how heaven amplifies Jesus’s love for his disciples, reminding readers that the God who extended grace to the bumbling Peter readily extends grace to you and me. Goodwin notes, “now that he is in heaven, his heart remains as graciously inclined to sinners that come to him, as ever on earth (4).” In the second and third part of the book, Goodwin unpacks the heart of Hebrews 4:15 which declares the Jesus is a high priest who “was in all points tempted like us, yet without sin.” He also traces Christ’s love for his people throw the Trinity, amplifying the love of God exemplified through the mercy and grace of God.
Goodwin’s recounting of God’s love for his people proves a refreshing correction to the works righteousness that dominates much of the evangelical world. Though the author’s old English could prove a little cumbersome for some readers, Goodwin’s small book will prove to be a powerful dose of encouragement for souls worn down by sickness, relationship difficulties, and the pressures put upon them by well-meaning religious folks who think God’s love flows through choir practices, painting projects, and Wednesday morning Bible studies. We don’t need those things to earn Jesus’s love. Christ’s heart is always towards his people.
But then, some greatly distressed souls might question thus: Though he pities me, and is affected, yet my misery and sins being great will he take them in to the full, lay them to heart, to pity me according to the greatness of them? To me with this thought therefore, and to prevent even this objection about Christ’s pity the apostle sets him out by what was the duty of the high priest, who was his shadow; that he is one that ‘can have compassion according to the measure of every one’s distress’s…Thy misery can never exceed his mercy.
As we wait for the glories of the Christ child to once again pierce the darkness of Christmas Eve, April and I want to bear witness to how the Christ child has blessed us this December. This past Monday, April endured her latest set of scans replete with needle pricks, swallowable dyes, and not so comfortable beds that drift in an out of large machines. Then like children bouncing around the house the night before Christmas, we waited to unwrap the results. On Wednesday, December 23, 2020 with the help of April’s talented UVA medical team, we unwrapped the latest report and found good news! Though a few new nondescript nodules have dotted the scans like misplaced Christmas light, the overwhelming majority of her tumors have either shrunk or remained stable. One has even decreased from 4.5 centimeters to 3.2 centimeters. The favor of Jesus rests upon my sweet bride.
But that divine favor does not eliminate all sorrow and hardships. Much like the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, April and I find ourselves living in the past, present and future. We look back at the pain and uncertainty that hovered over our last Christmas and give thanks for the radical improvements that have occurred in April’s body. She just made a Yule Log Cake (Hello Christmas!). We seek to stay in the present reveling in the good news of the day as we watch our three kiddos open Christmas presents, embrace Christmas cookie decorating, and sing “Joy to the World” at the top of their lungs. Lastly, the future also hangs about us like a damp, ill-defined midst. We know April will have to endure more scans, back pain, and days away from our children. April wishes she could reshape her future like Scrooge. Sadly, it remains both fixed and elusive.
Though we do not know what the content of the next report will be, we do know something of the sender’s character. He is our savior, the Christmas child, Christ the Lord! Psalm 100:5 declares, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” We know this is true because the baby in the manger, lived, died, and rose again to save sinners like April and me. He humbled himself to the point of death on the cross so that we might be exalted to live with God. And he guides us through life with more love and power than even one of Scrooge’s spirits. The famed pastor and theologian, John Calvin, rightly noted that when God’s people descend into hardship, “[God] will not desert them, but will powerfully help them should they need his aid.” In short, the light of Christmas morning reminds us that our future will be snuggly wrapped in the love of God. Though the results of April’s scan will invariably contain variation, we know the love of God will remain fixed. Because of that first Christmas long past, we too can sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased (Lk 2:14)!”
Thank you for rejoicing with us this cold December day. We covet your prayers and support. They warm our hearts, manifesting the love of God. We hope our good news infuses a little gospel cheer into your Christmas celebration.
More importantly, we pray that you too will discover the joy of the Shepherds, and of Mary and Joseph who knew that Jesus, “the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people the sheep of his pasture.” God is good all the time!