Free Online Hebrew Course

When I was part-time lecturer in the Free Church Seminary in Inverness, I put together an online Hebrew course for distance learners. It has 50 grammar lesson videos, and 40 vocabulary videos that use a mixture of word-plays, graphics, and sounds to make Hebrew vocab a bit more interesting and memorable.

The introductory page is here with the videos accessed via the tabs along the top.

Leadership lessons from President Obama?

Can pastors and other church leaders learn anything about leadership from President Obama? From President George Bush? From Bill Gates? From General Petraeus? From Chip Kelly?

That’s one of the questions I’d like to answer as we look at the three main resources God has provided to teach us about Christian leadership: His precepts, His patterns, and His providence.

God’s Precepts
God’s Word is obviously the first source of teaching on Christian leadership. The Bible tells us that there are two fundamentals for a Christian leader – spiritual life and moral life. Before anyone can become a Christian leader, they must first become a Christian; they must be born again (John 3:3,10). There can be no spiritual leadership without spiritual life.

But spiritual life is not enough; there must also be a moral life. As Christian leaders lead first and foremost by moral example, God’s moral law – the Ten Commandments – must shape their moral character.

Moreover, a Christian leader must go beyond having spiritual life and a holy life; these are but the basics of every Christian’s life. There are further leader-specific precepts and commands in both the Old Testament (e.g. Josh. 1:7) and in the New (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24). 

God’s Patterns
In addition to His commands and instructions, God also provides us with models, or metaphors, of leadership: the servant, the shepherd, the captain, the father, the steward, etc.

God also makes these leadership models come alive in the lives of biblical characters, who are frequently set forth as exemplary leaders with unique leadership qualities: Joseph (long-range planning), Moses (meekness), Jethro (delegation), David (team-building), Daniel (courage), the apostles (pioneering), etc.  And of course, the ultimate model, Jesus Christ, combines every leadership quality in perfect proportion and balance.

God’s models are also found in the pages of Church History (e.g. C H Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Robert Dabney, Charles Hodge, William Wilberforce, etc.) There are also Christian leaders in our own day that the Lord has raised up, whose faith we are to follow (Heb. 13:7). Some of them may be internationally known. Others may be simply the pastors and elders whom the Lord has brought into our lives at various points.

God’s Providence
In His gracious providence, God has given leadership gifts to many outside the Church. They may be Christians or non-Christians, and they may be found in various fields: political, military, sports, business, etc. May we learn from such leaders in some or all of these fields, or not at all? And if so, what safeguards and cautions do we need to put in place to avoid contaminating the church with unbiblical practices?

There are some Christians who say. “No, we may not learn anything about leadership outside the Bible.” I can understand this instinct. Too often the church has become far too much like a corporation, the pastor has become too much like a CEO, worship has become too much like a concert, preaching has become too much like a stand-up comedy, and evangelism has become too much like a marketing campaign. However, these abuses and perversions should not stop us learning even from unbelievers in certain areas and with certain safeguards in place.

I’d like to defend the idea of learning from non-biblical (I did not say unbiblical) sources and then consider a couple of safeguards.

First, by way of defense, in addition to God’s saving grace, the Reformed Church has usually acknowledged God’s common grace whereby He distributes gifts and abilities to non-Christians for the benefit of His Church and people.

John Calvin used the illustration of spectacles to explain this. He said that the Bible is not only what we read, but what we read with. We use its pages as spectacles to view and read the world and the knowledge, the light of nature, God has distributed throughout it (Inst. 1.6.1).

The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. . . . We will be careful. . . not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. (Inst. 2.2.15)

If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? . . . No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths (Inst. 2.2.15-16)

Second, there are over 20 models of leadership in the Bible; and they have all been brought in or borrowed from the “world” (the servant, the shepherd, the captain, the father, the steward, etc.) The model was first in the world (by God’s providence of course) and then used by God to teach His Church.

Third, some of the words used for Christian leaders are taken from non-Christian activities:

  • oikonomia  is a noun meaning administration of a household or an office; management of a state or house (e.g. Lk. 16:1-17; 1 Cor. 4:2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 4:10)
  • kybernesis is borrowed from sailing, and referred to the helmsman or pilot that guides the vessel to its destination (e.g. Acts 27:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Revelation 18:17) 
  • episkopos is usually translated “overseer” and originally described a man charged with responsibility of seeing that things done by others are done right (Titus 1:7)
  • proistemi in classical Greek referred to leadership in an army, state or party. It developed a range of meanings including guard, care, be at the head of, have charge over, preside over, lead, represent, sponsor, etc. (Romans 12:8;  1 Thessalonians 5:12 ; 1 Timothy 3:4,12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 3:14).

What safeguards can we put in place to learn from God’s gracious distribution of truth and gifts outside the church, without “bringing the world into the church.”

1. Biblical precepts and patterns are non-negotiable. If any leadership principle or practice is contrary to the Bible, then it must be rejected. The authority of Scripture stands above everything.

2. Biblical precepts and patterns must be studied most. While we may learn from non-biblical sources, if we are reading the Harvard Business Review and Business Bestsellers more than the Bible, we are in grave danger of drifting from biblical moorings.

3. Biblical precepts and patterns should control the big picture. If we keep the bible’s principles and practice as our overarching control, we can fill in some of the details from non-biblical sources. Here are some examples:

  • The Bible gives us the general principle of time management (Eph. 5:16), but it does not give us much detail about how to do this. We may fill out the details of this general principle by looking at the methods successful people in other fields have used to manage their time.
  • The Bible tells us that we are to be careful listeners, but again does not give us too many details about the “How to.” We can learn a lot from those who have studied the details of listening skills.
  • The Bible tells us we are to be shepherds, but we fill out the details of what that means by studying the character and conduct of ancient and modern shepherds.
  • The Bible tells us we are to teach God’s Word, but we can learn to be more effective teachers from specialists in the field of education.

With these three safeguards in place, we can prayerfully “plunder the Egyptians” for the good of Israel.

I want to be a leader in the church

It’s not usually expressed quite so blatantly or bluntly; but however well the call to the ministry is dressed up, there is usually at least an element of desire for leadership present. Some might say, “No, no, I don’t want to be a leader. I just want to preach the Gospel and teach God’s people.” However, even teaching and preaching involve leadership (1 Tim. 2:12).

The question is, “Does the ambition or desire to lead automatically disqualify a person from the ministry?” As J Oswald Sanders asks: “Is it not better for a position to seek out a person than the person to seek out the position?”

In earlier American history, it was thought improper of anyone to want to be President. If it happened, it happened, but you certainly didn’t seek it. So what about the ministry? Does the desire to be a pastor or preacher disqualify a person? There have been notable cases, like Calvin’s or Knox’s, when men were virtually forced into church leadership. That’s rare today, although in some limited circles the idea persists that a man is not called to the ministry unless God has more or less forced him into it against his will.

What usually happens today is that a man goes to his pastor or elders, and says something like, “I believe God is calling me into the ministry.” That sounds very passive and humble. The desire and activity is all on God’s side.  But, there is nothing wrong with a man wanting to be a pastor and taking steps to implement that desire. Paul said that if any man wants to be an elder, he desires a good work (1 Tim. 3:1). As another version puts it: “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition.” The potential problems do not lie in the desire or aspiration itself, but with the strength and nature of the desire.

Powerful desire
When a man tells me he feels he is being called to the ministry, I want to test the strength of that desire with questions such as: “Do you really want to be a pastor or minister? If so, how much do you want it? What difficulty would stop you from becoming a pastor? How would you respond if your pastor or elders rejected your application? Is there anything in life you desire to be or do more than be a pastor?” There should be very clear and definite answers to these questions. If a man does not have a strong desire to be a pastor, he might just about get through his Seminary studies, but he won’t last long in pastoral ministry. (Similar questions may be asked of anyone seeking other kinds of ministry positions.)

Pure desire
Once a strong desire is established, then the motive behind the desire should be examined. While Paul commended the desire to lead, Jeremiah said that if anyone seeks great things for himself, he should stop right there (Jer. 45:5). Diotrephes, who loved the preeminence, was a classic example of what Jeremiah warned against (3 John 9-10). Church History is littered with the ministerial corpses of those who had strong but unholy desires to lead.

Maybe Jeremiah’s words are more relevant to Americans than Paul’s. When Paul was complimenting men who wanted to be church leaders, he and they both knew that such positions guaranteed persecution, financial hardship, and a lifetime of stress. In that context, the desire to be a church leader was good and honorable – and rare.  But when there are significant rewards associated with being a church leader, as there are in many American settings, then sinful ambitions and selfish motives are going to be much more common.

So, if some desires for church leadership are good and holy, while others are sinful and selfish, how do we distinguish them? Well obviously anyone with a bit of savvy can say the right words to please a questioner. No question on earth will guarantee the exposure of real motives if someone is determined to disguise them. All we can really do is ask the man to prayerfully examine his own motives over a period of time. Perhaps provide him with a list like this and ask him if he finds his desires in the God-glorifying column, or in the self-glorifying column.

God-glorifying desires
1. I want to exalt God by my life and my lips
2. I want to serve God and His people
3. I want to see sinners saved and Christians equipped for works of service.
4. I want to teach people about the Bible and lead them in worship
5. I want to prepare people for eternity
6. I want to see the Church reformed and strengthened
7. I want to see the Church make an impact on my community, country, culture

Self-glorifying desires

1. I want to be famous
2. I want to be rich
3. I want to be powerful and influential
4. I want to be respected and recognized
5. I want to serve on important Committees and Boards
6. I want to be more fulfilled in my life
7. I want more time at home with my wife and kids
8. I’m getting on in life and fancy an easier job
9. I’m not happy in my present work, and thought I should try ministry
10. I want to make up for the wrong I’ve done in my life
11. I want to be the next Tim Keller, John Piper, Joel Beeke, etc
12. I want to make something of myself
13. I want to control others’ lives
14. I want to be wanted
15. I want to be free of a boss
16. I want to read and study
17. I want a title
18. I want to work where I don’t have to listen to cursing and swearing all day.

You’d be amazed at how many of these self-centered motives I’ve actually heard expressed!

May God give His servants powerful and pure desires!

Three lessons I’ve learned in parenting teens

I’m far from an expert on this, but I thought I’d share some thoughts about my first few years of parenting teenagers. I hope that some of these reflections might help some of my fellow-strugglers.

From what I have experienced, and also witnessed in pastoral ministry, there seems to be three tensions that define the teenage years.

Family v Friends
Obviously as children grow older they need family less and less – they think. They are not so dependent on their parents for food, drink, clothing, guidance, protection, etc. They spend more  and more time outside the home in school, sports and church activities. They meet more and more young people and begin to form friendships and relationships with them. All this is natural and normal.

However it also produces an increasingly problematic tension at home. Usually unnoticed before it is too late, the child’s focus is no longer on home, family, parents and siblings, but on friends, friends, and more friends. The children spend less and less time at home and invest less and less time in family relationships. And then Facebook enters to increase the tension even more by enabling children to be focused and engaged with friends 24/7, even when in the family home.

If unchecked, this unbalanced focus on friends can be carried into marriage, resulting in lonely spouses and practically orphaned children.

Questions to ask our teenagers:
Where is your primary focus – family or friends? Do you give more honor and respect to your friends than to your parents, brothers and sisters? What are you doing to make this home happier? What have you done to serve your parents or siblings today?

Relationships v Riches
As parents lavish more and more upon their children, the children may begin to define their relationship to their parents in terms of what they get from them – toys, iPods, snowboards, Wii’s, horses, clothes, vacations, etc. So children start selling their love to their parents.

And parents unwittingly cooperate with this by thinking that unless their children get the same as other children, they will grow up to hate their Mom and Dad. So parents start buying their children’s love.

Again, children often bring this economic view of relationships into other friendships and even their marriages, as they define their happiness in a relationship by what they can get out of it.

Questions to ask our teenagers: Do you love your possessions more than your parents? How would you respond if all your possessions were taken away, and all you had left were Mom and Dad? How much do you think about giving as opposed to getting? If you had the choice between your Mom and Dad in poverty or another Mom and Dad with millions, what would you choose?

Education v Entertainment
Children sometimes view school as either a means to an end (a good job and salary) or as a necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) evil. They live for evening and weekend sports, games, and recreation. Education is so boring. Entertainment is so stimulating. Boys especially tend to do the bare minimum to keep teachers and parents off their backs. But when it comes to skateboarding, hunting, snowboarding or computer games they come to life and practice, practice, practice until they excel!

This too carries over into adult life, as work is seen as a means to an end or as a necessary evil, rather than the place God has put them to glorify Him.

Questions to ask our teenagers: Do you see your school and your education as your divine calling – the place that God has called you to serve and glorify Him in? How much enthusiasm for excellence do you have for Math, English, etc? If the Lord Jesus was your teacher, would he be happy with your schoolwork?

I’ve set out three tensions, and that’s what they are. They are not three choices; it’s not that we and our children must choose family instead of friends, parents instead of possessions, and education instead of entertainment. Every parent-child relationship will have both elements of these three equations to one degree or another. The problem is when the balance of them falls on the wrong side consistently and excessively.

The “world” whispers (and sometimes shouts), “Unless you focus primarily on friends, possessions, and entertainment, you will lose your children’s love!” The Bible says otherwise.

How much we need to cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” And one of the ways He helps us is by driving us away from our own wisdom and strength, and towards prayer for Gospel power to change our children’s hearts.

This is not a battle we win once, but a battle we have to fight every day. Often we drift imperceptibly into imbalances, and we have to suddenly and painfully re-balance. Maybe reading this will at least help you to recognize the nature of the battle. And that’s often more than half the battle.

Three digital writing trends

Terry Jones explains how digital technology is making writing…

1. Smaller: smaller and smaller pieces of writing are being published
2. Easier: anyone with access to the Internet can easily and cheaply publish trivial, tiny pieces of information
3. More personal: people are putting more and more of themselves out there.

He then goes on to consider the impact of this on traditional books.

And while we are on the subject of writing, here are five tips for self-editing:

1. Don’t try to edit while you’re writing
2. Write one day, edit the next
3. Look for one mistake at a time
4. Get a second opinion
5. Read good writing from other people