Publication: One-to-One, Spring 2007
My parent’s named me, “Charles.” I didn’t care much for my name; I thought it was…well…“Sissy”. But then later, I found out why they named me “Charles.” My father had an older brother named “Charles.” By all accounts they were very close. Charles defended my dad against bullies, until dad got old enough to defend himself. Then Charles died in his mid-teens of a bone infection. His death left a deep mark on my father. I also discovered that “Charles” meant “Manly” and “Courageous.” Dad said that Charles was both, even as a teen. New understanding certainly changed my views about the name and challenged me to live up to it.
I was called into ministry at age 18, and at age 20, I became pastor of a small church. I often read about other leaders named Charles, namely Charles Spurgeon, Charles Wesley, and Charles Finney. At the same time, members of our church began calling me “Brother Charles,” out of respect for the position of pastor. That was OK with me, as long as they didn’t call me “Reverend Charles.”
Then, seven years after becoming a pastor, I began to study Ephesians 4 and was deeply interested in the gifts of Christ to the Church: Evangelist, pastor, teacher, prophet, and apostle. I read and heard much discussion of these ministries that were given to equip the Church for ministry and to bring it to maturity. I became convinced that these gifts had continued to exist throughout history and were still functioning in the Church.
I also noticed that some leaders began to label themselves as “apostles” or “prophets.” Of course, we were all used to the other labels: pastor, teacher, and evangelist. But prophet or apostle seemed ostentatious. However, clarity about these gifts could enable the Church to respect and receive what the Lord was doing in the Church. If evidence showed that a particular person was fulfilling the biblical definition of a gift, I had no problem with it.
I had been a pastor, a teacher, and on occasion did the work of an evangelist. In addition, I had prophesied and helped establish churches. Did that make me “Apostle Charles” or “Prophet Charles”? The thought made me uncomfortable.
Jesus delivered strong criticism against the Jewish officials who were removed from the burdens of common people. They loved the honored seats and to be called “Father” or “Rabbi”. But Jesus, who came from lowly Nazareth, was critical of the officials of Jerusalem (see Matthew 23). He told His followers, “Do not call anyone ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Father’.” He went on to say, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Now I could stop here and condemn titles. But that would misinterpret what Jesus said. Jesus Himself was called “Christ”, a title. He also has many other titles. It was Jesus who called men to be apostles and He often referred to the prophets, both are titles. And there remained both fathers and teachers in the Early Church. The apostles were called “apostles” by the Church. Paul refers to himself as an “apostle”, and so on.
So, what was Jesus saying about titles? He was attacking the notion that a title should separate anyone from the service it indicated. Titles should represent a mission, not merely a position. Service was Jesus’ mission and must be ours.
The apostle Paul has a similar theme in I Corinthians 3. He addresses the divisions in the church at Corinth and says, “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” In verse 9 he says, “For we are God’s fellow workers.” In verse 13 he says, “Each one’s work will become clear, for the Day will declare it.” In verse 21 he says, “Therefore let no one boast in men, for all things are yours.”
Though Paul carried the title, “apostle,” he did not separate himself from the service or from the people. In fact, he was a model of service as was our Lord. His position was matched by his mission and was vindicated in history (see Acts 20).
The question therefore is not what we are called, but what are we called to do? I do not care much about what I am called, nor what someone else is called. I care a lot about what my mission is. “Mother Theresa” was called “mother” because she lead a group of nuns. But, her fame was not her title, but it was her compassion for the mission and the poor of Calcutta.
What about the title, “church member”? What does that mean? Unfortunately, it has come to mean little in the eyes of the world. That is because people do not see it as a mission, only a position. One of the main criteria for church membership should be a willingness to join the mission of Christ. We talk a lot about our position in Christ–that is good. But what about our world mission in Christ? If we are truly baptized into Christ, then we are also personally baptized into His will and His work.
Christ is our model. He came, not to be ministered unto, but to give His life as a ransom for many. Those who followed Him demonstrated what we call “apostolic Christianity,” the historical example of what it means to be truly Christian. The word “apostle” itself means “sent forth”. For three centuries our fathers in the faith gave their very lives to bring the Gospel of the Kingdom to all nations. The titles that they carried represented powerful and functional ministries that struck terror in the spiritual principalities.
The apostolic Church well understood carnal pomp and out-of-touch religion, not only in Israel, but across the Mediterranean region. All religion seems to share the propensity to create an out-of-touch celebrity hierarchy. Flesh is flesh by whatever name. But the title “Captain” holds no honor on a sinking ship.
When we stand before a judge, we are obligated to address the judge as ”Your Honor”. But if that judge takes bribes or judges unfairly, the title will not save him or her from shame. If “Christians” fail to embrace the mission of Christ, we too will not be spared the shame of being unmasked before a skeptical world. They scoff at titles but respect service.
The Apostolic Church won hearts and minds because they were ablaze with mission. They proliferated at great cost and finally toppled an empire–perhaps the most powerful in history. But somewhere since then, many Christians have developed the lust for positions and many lost the love of mission. Perhaps the best exhibit of this sad fact is that the once great church buildings of Europe, which testify to a powerful and glorious past, have now become mere museums surrounded by a sea of secularism, and a growing militant Islam–an Islam on a mission.
The issues on which such churches focus tends to be, who gets the pomp and power Men or women? Homosexuals or heterosexuals? Left or right? Those who get the position celebrate over a decreasingly significant and increasingly marginalized church. Africa is now sending missionaries to Europe and the United States. Is that now the home of apostolic Christianity? I heartily recommend the book, While Europe Slept, by Bruce Bawer, whose “labels” defy any categorization as “conservative.” His background is that of a gay New York liberal, who witnessed firsthand the precipitous decline now happening in Europe and began to, wake up.
It is appropriate to remind us that even terrorist groups understand that service wins hearts and minds. Hezbollah has controlled much of Lebanon by providing money and service to the poor. Hezbollah also functions in the U.S.–with a mission.
So what is our mission? Jesus could not have been more clear: “Disciple Nations.” We are called to preach His Kingdom, baptize disciples, and teach them to observe all that He commanded. The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to begin teaching. We are called to be the light, and give light, to a world that is obviously in darkness.
But what has happened? Leaders are tricked into maintaining their membership, often focusing on “problem-people” who have become perpetual spiritual “black holes” of life, purpose, and mission. “Let the dead bury the dead” might be an appropriate advice for many leaders. Harsh? Jesus said it. It was not eloquent, but accurate. His focus was on mission.
Recently President Bush gave a speech on “Moving Forward in Iraq.” Some observed that it was not eloquent. Once astute commentator suggested, “It is not the speech that matters; it is the plan.” We do not need eloquence; we need action. Insisting on action may cause trouble. We should remember that Jesus was crucified by His contemporaries; His titles came later. If we do the hard work now, history will take care or our titles. If not? Our children will shame us.
We can take a fresh look at Ephesians 4 and realize that pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles are given to the Church to equip the believers to do the work of the ministry. We can insist that church membership is belonging to a group of people who are prepared and zealous to get out into the world with the Gospel. We can make uncomfortable those who are satisfied with a mere position and fail to engage the mission.
To whom is our mission? It is to the same people that Jesus went to: Those who are in trouble, and who realize that they need deliverance from their situation and from themselves. It is not to those who have no needs. The healthy do not need a doctor. Jesus came to seek those who were sick, spiritually and physically. He is the Great Physician. He changed those people then, He changed the world.
The problem comes when attaining or defending a position becomes the focus, and a sense of mission is lost. Simply building a larger church is not a biblical mission. Larger churches are the by-product of our mission–or should be. Being a “good church member” is not a biblical mission. But getting on with our mission will make us true followers of Jesus.
I have been increasingly concerned about the day that I stand before my Lord and what He might call me. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” would be an honor beyond words.
Scripture Reference: Ephesians 4; Matthew 23; 1 Corinthians 3; Acts 20
Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.