A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

When A Pastor Commits Suicide

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7)

I am on my way home from the funeral of a fellow Baptist pastor who committed suicide. I got the news on Thursday morning (which explains why my usual Thursday or Friday blog post is absent; I was too deeply affected to do anything). The news came as a shock to me—and indeed to everyone else who knew the pastor. He had been an intern at Kabwata Baptist Church for a few months over ten years ago. He was a very fine man and slightly younger than me. I last met him two months ago when I was preaching at a pastors’ annual retreat. He has left behind a wife and three young children, plus a devastated congregation.

When a pastor commits suicide, apart from the emotion of shock there is also a lot of disappointment and dismay. As one member lamented, “Pastor was the one who always encouraged us to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ when overwhelmed by the challenges and difficulties that confronted us. How could he fail to handle whatever it is that made him take his life?” Some people who heard were even questioning his salvation: “Can a Christian commit suicide?” Others found in this the proof that the pastor was a hypocrite all along.

Moral failure and shame
So, what made this pastor take his own life? It was serious moral failure coupled with a high sense of the dignity of the pastoral office. His suicide note read something like, “I know what I have done is wrong, but I cannot face the shame.” He had gone into a depression but due to the nature of what took him into the depression, he failed to open up to anyone until the night before he killed himself. He shared with a visiting fellow pastor who counselled him and his wife. However, the next morning he went and took his own life out of a sense of shame.

Shame. That is a very powerful word. As pastors, we are moral pillars in society. We know that and our church members know that. Hence, it is the height of infamy when they discover that we were doing in secret what we denounced in public. The community also knows us as men who want them to abandon their ways of sin and so it is disgraceful for them to learn that we were secretly eating the very food we were telling them not to eat. It is embarrassing to be found in this moral contradiction. The enemies of truth and morality rejoice and want the world to know that all the holier-than-thou men of the cloth are hypocrites.

The sense of shame grows the higher you go up in the estimation of people. The pastor who committed suicide was in the leadership of the fellowship of evangelical pastors in his town. He was also a denominational leader in the whole province. Since he had been pastoring in the same community for over ten years, he had also become very well known among the common people in that town. Therefore, the height from which he had fallen was quite high.

Every pastor needs to know that when there is moral failure that is the beginning of the end of one’s ministry. Even when the hypocrisy is not discovered, the conscience receives a mortal wound and so the preaching loses its cutting edge. Certain topics are avoided or dwelt on too much in the preaching, and so the church gets a lopsided ministry. Sadly, appetite grows with feeding and sin is cultured in darkness. So, hidden moral failure tends to repeat itself until God says, “Enough is enough”: He opens the wardrobe and the skeletons fall out.

The mixed reaction of people
I must admit that I was surprised by the positive comments from people about their pastor despite the way in which he ended his life. In private and informal conversations many people—including his wife—spoke highly of his prayer life, his hard work, his ministry of encouragement, his selflessness and generosity, his love for his wife and children, etc. At the burial, the incoming principal at the college where the pastor was trained assured the church that the college would be willing to help them find a replacement. A shout was heard from the congregation, saying, “But he will never be like this man!” No doubt they felt robbed of a very rare asset from heaven.

When one pastor falls, life becomes next to impossible for other pastors. It takes a very long time for the church to recover from the trauma and feel that they can trust another pastor. All pastors become guilty until proved innocent. For a while you do not want to be identified as a pastor in the streets of town. The glances from the people seem to say, “Oh, so he is another one of those hypocrites.” Pastors’ wives also start seeing mortal danger whenever they see a young lady laughing with their husbands on the church grounds. Consequently, many pastors’ master bedrooms become scenes of intense fellowship for a few months. The wives mean well but this phobia makes them see feminine suicide bombers behind every skirt.

As usual, when a thing like this happens, everyone knows exactly what the pastor was or did which led to his fall (which they themselves are not or will never do). They become self-appointed spiritual pathologists and diagnose with the skill of a specialist: “The pastor must have stopped praying long ago.” “These pastors are all just hypocrites”. “The pastor must have had marriage problems”. “You must never counsel single women alone.” “A pastor must only counsel a woman once and then hand her over to another woman to continue the counselling.” “He was just careless”. “When counselling a woman you must always involve your wife.” “Pastors are too proud to be open with one another.” Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

Pray for your pastors
During the funeral service, the preacher pleaded with all Christians and especially pastors to have bosom friends in whom they can confide. He emphasised the fact that we all need real friends—friends before whom we can afford to be vulnerable. There is no doubt that this is part of the problem. The higher you go in ministry the more admirers you have but the fewer real friends. A very close friend to the pastor who committed suicide asked, “Was I so bad that my friend would prefer to kill himself than to confide in me about his spiritual struggles?” I am sure he is not the only one doing some heart-searching during this period. There is no doubt that the late pastor’s wife must also be searching her heart like this.

I have only one appeal: Pray for your pastors. The devil is real and there is only one that is stronger than him—not your pastor but God. Satan knows that if he can strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter. Hence, he targets pastors with his most potent missiles. Many Christians are oblivious to this fact. They tend to simply admire their pastors as if they were super humans. They project their childhood invincible comic heroes (Spider Man, Mr America, etc.) upon their pastors and simply watch them as they fight sin with heroic energy in the community and in the church. They forget that pastors are also fallen creatures.

I will be the first one to confess that there are times when my struggle with my own fallen nature is so vicious that I wish I were still a private unknown Christian plying out my trade as a mining engineer in the Zambian copper mines. I would be less overwhelmed by my failures and would not carry so many people down with me. So, I end this blog post with an impassioned plea that all those who know me (and especially the Christians in my own church) should pray for me to run my race well to the very end. As Paul pleaded with the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:25), I say, “Brethren, pray for us!” One song kept ringing in my heart as we drove more than 900 kilometres back home today,

“O to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I am constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Are all elders “pastors”?

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:11).

The current Kabwata Baptist Church elders (with two pastors)
This is an age-old question that will never die. In fact, like fish out of water, it is best left alone to beat itself on the ground until it dies a natural death. Picking it up and trying to aid it in the dying process often results in it slipping out of your hands and falling back into the water, and thus gives it a new lease of life.

Then why on earth am I bringing up this subject? It is because in the second of the two conferences I preached at in Brazil (I am typing this on the plane flying back home) one of the speakers brought it up. He argued that all elders are pastors and all pastors are elders. In fact, he stated that he does not want to be called a pastor but simply an elder. He challenged us to show him in the Bible where anyone, except the Lord Jesus Christ, was called a pastor.

He went so far as to say that he did not believe in “this thing called a call to the ministry”. It is very misleading, he said. If a person claims that he is called by God to be a pastor it shuts out the church from assessing him. “How can you question a person who says that God has called him? Everything is taking place inside him and you are not in there!” Instead, he argued, it is the church that must call a person. He asserted, “God calls a person through the church. That way the church can assess whether a person should be an elder or not. We Presbyterians are wrong on this point. We need to correct this.”

An appreciated note of warning
Of course, where I was seated I thought, “Oh, please, not again.” I think that people mean well who question the distinction in the eldership between those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches. There can be a very unhealthy separation between the two that makes the latter feel like second-rate citizens in the eldership. In fact, sometimes Christians speak as if there are three distinct offices in the church—the pastor, the elders, and the deacons.

So, let us at least agree that there are only two offices in the church—elders and deacons. That is not the issue. The bone of contention is whether it is right to speak about two kinds of elders, and thus designate one kind as “pastor” and the other simply as “elder”? I think that a case can be made for both sides of the argument, and the Brazilian brother brought out some of the chief arsenals of those who contend that there should be no difference. Elder is the office and “pastor” is simply the work that elders do—period.

Let me say that I have a lot of respect for those who hold on to this position. I see sincerity in their arguments. I also see a concern to remove the clerical Christianity that puts a reinforced concrete wall between clergy and laity, and so alienates ordinary Christians from a sense of ownership in the church. It turns pastors into priests who alone seem to be hearing the voice of God. Such a division invariably leads us back to the pre-Pentecost, Old Testament religion. It also opens us up to the extremities that have dogged extreme-Charismatic circles, with their untouchable anointed servants of God, who have become demagogues.

There are two kinds of elders
Having said that, however, it is equally clear to me that those who often argue for this position fail to also give credence to the fact that there are equally sustainable and tenable arguments for the other position. In other words, this is a matter where we must agree to disagree and wait until heaven to see who was actually right. Let me state a few arguments for the position that there are certainly two kinds of elders within the eldership—those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches.

Let us at least admit that 1 Timothy 5:17 suggests that those elders who govern well and labour in the Word and doctrine must be treated differently from the rest. They are to receive double honour, which in the context suggests both distinct recognition and pay (see the use of the Greek word “time” in 1 Timothy 5:3, 6:1). At least, let us admit this much.

But, should those elders who distinguish themselves this way be the only ones to use the title of “pastor”? It should first be stated that the Bible does not make much of titles. It especially discourages titles when they go beyond acknowledging the distinct service someone renders in the church and becomes a way of grading people in the church into classes. So, strictly speaking, we should not be fighting about titles. We are all just brothers and sisters in Christ.

I only address this because the argument is not simply about common titles but about obliterating the distinction in the eldership between those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches. Those who say that all pastors are elders and all elders are pastors are essentially saying that there is no difference between these two because “all the elders pastor”. So, why deny them the title and only give it to those in the eldership who claim to have a call to the preaching ministry?

I think that those who argue like this use an argument that is very weak. If we sustained that argument with the title of deacon, then all Christians should be called deacons because all Christians “serve” (the word “deacon” simply means “servant”). But that is not true. The Bible clearly teaches that some people in the church can be officially called deacons. We can push it even further and say that since every Christian evangelises—or at least ought to—then every Christian should be called “evangelist”. But again that is not true. There appears to have been only some Christians that the Bible used this term for. It is clear that titles in the New Testament were not simply given to people because of what they do. Again, let us at least admit this much.

Who is supposed to be called pastor?
So, who in the New Testament enjoyed the title of “pastor”? Thankfully, we have a list that includes this title in Ephesians 4:11. Referring to the Lord Jesus Christ when he ascended to heaven, Paul says, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…” Would I be wrong to suggest that what is common about the men in this list is their call to the preaching ministry? Look at each one of them. Christ calls men to this work and then gives them as gifts to the church. Through their preaching ministries, souls are won to Christ, churches are planted, and Christians are built up in their most holy faith. They do this not primarily because they are part of an eldership but because of a sense of calling upon their lives. They are compelled to preach (1 Cor. 9:16)!

I think that the Achilles Heel of those who see no difference between “pastors” and “elders” is that they commence from the position of an already fully functioning eldership in the local church. In that context, you have the leisurely comfort of even questioning the issue of calling to the preaching ministry and limiting everything to simply levels of giftedness with words. After all, you already have an inherited crowd to oversee!

We need to start from the position where there is no church. Who will go and plant new churches in virgin lands? Elders? Surely it must be men in whose hearts the gospel is a burning passion—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. It is these men who will willingly sacrifice their professional careers because of a sense of call. It will take years of painstaking and lonely labours of evangelising and then discipling new converts before men with the rudiments of eldership qualities can be nurtured, trained, and ordained.

When such an eldership is finally in place, these men with a sense of call to the preaching ministry will work with them as a team to oversee the church. They will work with them as “first among equals”. For the other elders to now turn around and start claiming that there is no such thing as a call to the preaching ministry and there is no distinction between “you and us” is preposterous. In fact, when you look at Acts 15, when referring to Jerusalem’s fully functioning eldership, Luke kept referring to “the apostles and elders”, although the apostles were elders (as can be proved by 1 Peter 5:1). Therefore, would it be patently wrong to also distinguish the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastor-teachers within the eldership? Well, evidently, Luke did not think so (see also Acts 13:1).

In conclusion
Well, as I draw this blog post to an end, let me make it clear that my goal was not to convince anyone who already holds to the position that all elders are pastors and all pastors are elders, and that, therefore, the terms should be used interchangeably. Because that was not my aim, I have not answered the usual questions that arise from the position I hold on to. Rather, my purpose was to simply show that those of us who see things differently do have some biblical premise on which we do so. We are not simply upholding unbiblical practice and tradition.

We believe that a healthy eldership in an already established church ought to comprise those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers. Whereas the Bible uses the terms “overseer” and “elder” interchangeably, it seems to leave the term “pastor” to those with a very distinct call to the preaching ministry—like apostle, prophet, and evangelist. I hope I have also shown that to argue that the Bible uses titles merely on the basis of what people do in a general way in the church would render other titles meaningless. And finally, please remember that the issue of titles is not a hill that I am willing to die on.

Now, what have I done? I think that I have picked up the fish that was beating itself to death on the ground. I fear that it may have slipped out of my hands and fallen back into the water!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Book that Changed My life—The Herald of His Coming

“This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

(Stop Press: On Tuesday morning, I woke Felistas up with the news that the counter on my blog had just crossed the 100,000 mark. I had hoped she would be as excited as I was and perhaps pour me a cup of coffee in congratulations but she did not. I guess many others with much more traffic visiting their blogs, like Tim Challies, would not find such news exciting. That is their traffic per day! But I must say that I have had my eyes on that counter for a few months now…waiting for the 100,000th visitor. So for me, that was a precious milestone. It took a little over 3 years to get there. Let us see how long it will take to reach 200,000. I am watching the counter, though not that anxiously any more).    

The next instalment of “The Book That Changed My Life” is from Barnabas Chiboboka. He is married to Grace and the Lord has entrusted into their care four biological children. He is a Chartered Accountant, but has also specialised in management studies. He fellowships at Kabwata Baptist Church, but is presently attached to a new church plant (Bonaventure Baptist Church) in the southern tip of Lusaka. He loves premarital counselling, and has counselled many young couples on the eve of their weddings. He also loves poetry and since 1987 has been compiling a collection that he hopes could be graduated into hymns! Well, let us hear about the book that changed his life…

* * * * *

The imagery of the descent of Christ at his second coming, the authority, the power, and the glory that will surround his return, as described in the scriptures, made early imprints on my mind that will never be obliterated: That I should be invited to be part of this great ceremony is amazing and incredible—not for time, but for eternity. The imagery of his second coming still rings fresh melodies each earthly day. To be part of this grand occasion is something that cannot be imagined. Yet, it will come to pass as God has said.

It was a monthly magazine, and not necessarily a book that left indelible imprints on my mind. In my early years of seeking salvation (Grade 6-7), I subscribed to a number of Christian magazines, which I received regularly. One such magazine was THE HERALD OF HIS COMING published by the Gospel Revivals Inc. of Los Angeles. I was an avid reader of this magazine and one topic that I looked forward to reading in every issue was the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This topic really excited me even though I was not yet a Christian. I later understood why the imprints of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ were painted in indelible stains on my mind. God used this topic as the means to arrest and compel me to bend my knees to the King. The period of searching was between 1980 and 1981.

F.B Meyer wrote one such article published in March 1981. It was simply entitled “The Second Coming of Christ”. Another one was by Horatius Bonar and yet another was by R H Hudges. These two were published in 1980. They were entitled, “Are you looking and living for his coming?” and “Prepare for him”, respectively. In fact, peace was denied me for three years and the very prized topic haunted me because I realised I was not ready to meet him at his second coming. Thankfully, at the end of that period I found peace in believing in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and accepting his lordship over my life.

I now look forward to his return and agree to the statement of faith below for Gospel Revival Inc. in theory and in practice:

“We believe that Jesus, some days after His resurrection from the dead, ascended to God in heaven (Acts1:1-10; Eph. 1:15-23). We believe in the personal return of Jesus with power and great glory (Luke 21:27), and that His return is an event for saved people to look forward to with great expectation and with constant watchfulness and prayer (Luke 21:34-36; 1 John 3:2-3).  We believe that this same Jesus, which was taken up from the apostles into heaven, shall so come in like manner as they saw Him go into heaven (Acts 1:1-11).” 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Preaching at the Encontro de Fa Reformada in Brazil

“Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The beginning of November found Felistas and me in Brazil where we still are. I am preaching at the 12th Encontro de Fa Reformada conference at the Igreja Presbiteriana Nova Cidade (New City Presbyterian Church) in Manaus.

I reported on my last preaching trip to this conference in 2008 on this blog (click here). This is probably my fifth visit to this conference, which I had the pleasure to be a part of at its commencement in the year 2000. During my last two visits, it had grown into two conferences in Manuas and Gioania. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the conference is now in seven to nine cities, covering a fair section of the northern part of this vast country.

Pastor Jaime Marcelino
The theme for this year’s conference was “Pastoring the Church of God” (click here to visit their website). The host pastor, Jaime Marcelino, preached on “Pastoring for Eternity”. Hernandes Lopes failed to make it due to ill health. Tedd Tripp, author of the book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, preached on “Pastoring the Family”. Tarcizio Carvalho preached on “Pastoring as a Model for Families”.

Solano and Betty Portela, and Tedd and Marge Tripp
Solano Portela (who always interprets for me at these conferences) preached on “Pastoring in a World of Darkness”. It is clear that much thought is put into the breakdown of the theme of the conference. Pastor Jaime Marcelino is a very meticulous planner. I was not too surprised when I learned that he was trained as a Civil Engineer. The preachers also do a very good job in sticking to their topics. Yours truly dealt with “Pastoring the Pastors”.

Elisama (left), Pastor Jaime Marcelino's eldest daughter, with a guest
Part of the headache of organising a conference in Portuguese with a few of your preachers being English speakers is how to get them to listen to the Portuguese preachers. Pastor Jaime insists we benefit from the sermons too. In most countries, this is solved by putting the foreigners at the back with someone whispering into their ears in a language they can understand. That is not the case here. Solano’s wife, Betty, types out the sermon while it is being preached and Felistas and I sandwich her between us so that we can read what is being said.

Noeme, Pastor Jaime Marcelino's other daughter, playing the piano
This year, she had the extra task of translating for the Tripps. One way would have been to have them sit behind her while craning their necks in order to see what she was typing on her laptop. Instead, she connected her MacBook Pro to her iPad in such a way that whatever she was typing on her MacBook was automatically being seen on the iPad. So, Tedd and Marg sat comfortably on their pew and “listened” to the sermon in English. Marvelous!

The Igreja Presbiteriana Cidade Nova, where the conference was held
The week was also spent enjoying Brazilian hospitality. We stayed with Pastor Jaime’s family (as we always do) and savoured every moment. Mrs Fransisca (Pastor Jaime’s wife) goes to town to make sure you eat the very best of Brazilian delicacies. With Felistas sitting next to me, I cannot indulge too much. However, I make sure that I leave enough space for the desserts. They are just delicious!

The musicians (guitarists) in the Lord's house during the conference
During the conference, we also went to other homes for our lunches, together with the other preachers and their hosts. Included in this entourage was a brother from Angola, Antonio Mussaqui, who also attended the conference.

Tarcizio Carvalho preaching during the conference
What the Brazilians fail to achieve because of the language barrier, they certainly make up by their warmth and friendship. It is as if you are still in Africa. Of course, their hugs are a trademark that we cannot match up to.

Antonio Mussaqui bringing greetings from Angola
I have been asked to return in 2014 in order to celebrate with the brethren here the 15th anniversary of the Encontro de Fa Reformada conference. That year the FIFA Football World Cup will also be held in Brazil, with some of the matches taking place in Manaus itself. I am scratching my head to see how I can kill two birds with one stone and I have three years to figure it out!

Pastor Jaime Marcelino with his dearest wife, Francisca

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Book That Changed My Life—A Woman After God’s Own Heart

My next instalment of “The Book That Changed My Life” is from Mrs Lumpuma Kayombo. For 10 years she worked as my office assistant at Kabwata Baptist Church until she got married to Pastor Ndonji Kayombo. She is now a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Kitwe, Zambia, the church that her husband pastors. God has blessed them with a 3 month old daughter, Wenyi.  She serves in the children’s ministry in the church where she teaches Sunday school. Well, let us hear about the book that changed Lumpuma’s life…

* * * * *

I first came across the book, A Woman After God’s Own Heart, by Elizabeth George, about six years ago when a housemate of mine borrowed the book from a friend. I did not pay too much attention to it then because I was single and thought it was a book for those who were married or preparing to get marriage. However, I did realise that it was a popular book because there were a number of women waiting to read the copy that my housemate had. A few years later, a friend of mine who is a bookshop manager recommended that I buy a copy. And, being the good marketer that she is, I bought it not fully realising what a precious treasure I had just acquired.

In A Woman After God’s Own Heart, Elizabeth George writes about how a woman can grow in her walk with the Lord through reading the scriptures regularly; and, with God’s word as a foundation, is able to look after her home, her husband, and her children, and minister to others in a God-glorifying way. Elizabeth also highlights how having your priorities right helps you to grow spiritually and to give out to others.

God must be at the top of the list, followed by your husband, children, the home, and lastly other people that God brings your way. Practising these priorities daily helps you to manage your time and energy, and basically have control over your life. Elizabeth, however, encourages flexibility, bearing in mind the providential acts of God. She also talks about developing yourself spiritually for your own benefit and the benefit of others.

As I began to read the book I saw how instructive it was in dealing with one’s relationship with God, and how one could truly be a woman after God’s own heart whether single or married and whether working or at home. My friend and I decided to study this book together with three other friends. We would read the book in our own time and schedule a day to review the particular chapter and point out the lessons we had learned, encouraging one another to apply them in our individual lives. We would then pray for our individual needs and particularly that we would live our lives according to the lessons learned that day.

The book helped me to understand more deeply the need for me to maintain my spiritual life because it affects all areas of my life and that I can only do this by being close to God and rooted in his word. It helped me realise the need to meet with the Lord regularly for me to have a fruitful Christian life and glorify God in the way I handle various issues in my life as a woman. The choices you make in life depend on your life’s priorities!

Elizabeth George
I learned to keep my priorities right while I was still single and saw the spiritual benefit of doing so and being in charge of my life. I’ve been married for 2 years and 10 months now and have continued benefitting from this principle. When I got married, I had to change towns and so decided to start another reading club with another friend and we continued reading through A Woman After God’s Own Heart. She has also found it very beneficial and recently used it to counsel a young lady preparing for marriage.

Thanks for this book, Elizabeth. God is using it to bless many hearts!