Wineskins Archive

November 27, 2013

Peter (Apr 2013)

Filed under: — @ 1:03 am and

By Justin Simmons

He replays that night in his head often. Things happened quickly. The questions kept coming one after the other. The pressure from those around him had become so great that he did the unthinkable. Even though his friend was facing the greatest crisis of his life, Peter left him alone to face his accusers. He left him alone to be crucified.

We are all familiar with the story of Peter’s failure. Not only was it a very public one, but it is immortalized in scripture so that it will never be forgotten. It’d be a depressing story if that were the end. If Peter had gone the way of Judas, overcome by his grief to the point of self-destruction, the story would certainly have a different feel.

I wonder if we could approach this story from what is perhaps a less familiar angle. If Peter were standing before our congregation for confirmation as an elder or a minister of the gospel, what would happen? How many of our churches would confirm in leadership a man with such a public failure of faith? The truth is that we are too often guilty of looking for not just godly persons, but perfect ones. In so doing, we bring to the process of calling leaders for our churches a standard that is not just stringent, but impossible. While it’s clear that we should prayerfully discern who we call to positions of leadership in the church, it’s possible that we are expecting the impossible from those we call. It should tell us something that men like Peter and Paul, with their respective crisis of faith and history of Christian persecution, would never even make the short-list of candidates for leadership in many of today’s churches. By taking this approach, we exclude the righteous that are open and honest about their imperfections. Instead we look for those who have sanitized their past, and whose secret, un-confessed sins present at least the veneer of perfection.

Despite the decisions our churches would make about him today, Peter was an elder, as well as an apostle. The man who denied Jesus became a leader of Jesus’ church. In the beginning of Acts we find Saul ravaging the church, but by the middle of the book we find Saul with not only a new name, Paul, but also a new mission. The destroyer of churches is now a church-planter. The church can proclaim the gospel more boldly and powerfully by selecting those who are honest about their failings, than it ever could by confirming the world’s impression that all the church is about is presuming and projecting perfection. But how do we do this without compromising the integrity of church leadership?

There are characteristics in the lives of church leaders in the Bible that point to a way of harmoniously combining our desire for strong spiritual leadership with the realization that our leaders will, by their very nature, be flawed. We usually focus on a few passages that speak directly to the qualifications of elders and deacons when it comes time to appoint new leaders and servants, but we often overlook in scripture examples of who these men were. When we take into consideration both the explicit teaching of scripture, as well as the examples provided therein, we can reach the conclusion that there are ways to openly acknowledge, and even use the imperfections of our leaders for the good. When such imperfections are met with humility, and when our leaders model a trajectory of growing closer to Christ despite their imperfections, true leadership is taking place. What we need in our churches are not leaders who must feign perfection so as to not be judged, but those who are willing to openly acknowledge their sinful state, and display as a response a true example of someone seeking to imitate Christ. After all, we do not seek to become like our leaders, but like Christ.

For this reason, true pastoral guidance is not the display of perfection, but rather the directing of others toward Christ. How else can we reconcile Paul’s statements about his own sinful condition with his exhortation to the churches he helped plant to “imitate me”. When writing to the Corinthians, Paul says “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10) Paul is the least of the apostles, and yet more than once Paul instructs his converts to “imitate me”. In that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul would write, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” He doesn’t just stop at “imitate me”, but goes on to specify that Timothy’s mission to them is to remind them of Paul’s “ways in Christ.” Later in I Corinthians Paul is more to the point when he simply states, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Leaders like Peter and Paul didn’t flaunt their imperfections, their weakness, their sin; but they also didn’t hide it. And though the world around us looks very different than it looked when the apostles were walking the earth, human nature has not changed. What our world, what the people in our world need is honesty. They don’t need to be shown seemingly perfect individuals as examples of faith. On some level, everyone is aware of the fact that in some way they are broken. Wouldn’t it be better if we as Christians, and especially those among us who are Christian leaders, spoke openly of our brokenness and of how Christ has mended those broken places in our lives? Too often, people enter our churches and all they find are people pretending to be perfect. There is no comfort to be found for the one who comes seeking because they know that they are far from perfect.

Maybe instead of seeking leaders who have most successfully buried their skeletons, we should start looking for ones who are willing to speak about how God breathed new life into what was once just a stack of bones. When we read of the encounter between God and the prophet Ezekiel in the “valley of dry bones” we may view it as prophetic, but might it also be descriptive of what we see happening to people like Peter and Paul in the story of the New Testament?

<blockquote>“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:1-6)</blockquote>

In many senses, Peter probably felt as if he had died that fateful night in the courtyard of the high priest. Imagine how Paul must have felt when that blinding light brought with it the realization that despite his best effort, he had been fighting against the purposes of God. The good news of the gospel is that God uses imperfect people. What if instead of hiding those people, we placed them in visible positions of leadership so that they might reveal to us how we as imperfect people might seek after, and be led by a perfect God?

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