I grew up surrounded by elders. Not folks with a title or position. Just a bunch of dangerous old people. Old men and women in the church. Nothing was more dangerous in my childhood than an old woman coming at me with a switch from a willow tree. A close second was the guttural utterance of an old man, directed at frolicking kids, “Yah!” (it doesn’t translate well to the written word, but anybody over 60 has likely heard it) Nobody had to teach us what it meant. We instinctively knew. It would stop us in our tracks like bird dogs on point.
All week my mother had threatened me. “I’m going to tell Lynwood.” Lynwood Smith was an old gospel preacher, who likely wasn’t so old then. There were few threats more frightening. He was THE most dangerous old man in my life. I was about 4-years-old. My dad had a business on Main Street in Ada, Oklahoma. He was scheduled to go a few blocks away to pick up Lynwood at the bus station. When he got into his pickup truck to go fetch the old preacher, I immediately headed to the bathroom and locked myself inside. I remember crouching on the floor anxiously waiting to see what my future might look like.
I had been lying. Without hesitation. And perfectly willing to do what my mom demanded, “Look me in the eyes and tell me.” Looking her in the eyes and lying wasn’t a problem. Facing Lynwood was.
All I remember was a banging on the door and a loud, stern voice. “Randy, this is Lynwood.” From that point forward my memory is a complete blank. Likely because I blacked out. Who knows?
They say old men are dangerous because they no longer care what happens to the world. That’s wrong. Old men are dangerous because they care more!
These dangerous old people in my life delivered one of the most important first lessons I learned about leadership. They were mostly dangerous against anything that would hinder our spiritual prosperity.
In Genesis 4 God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” The lying murderer of his own brother replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
This brief exchange illustrates the personal, individual leadership God requires of each of us.
We’re responsible for watching out for each other, for understanding the spiritual whereabouts of our brethren so we can help each other keep the faith.
Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
True leadership achieves greatness when we bear responsibility for ourselves and for one another.
The Lord focused most of his personal ministry to our duty to love one another. To serve each other in selfless ways where we all benefit. From the story of the good Samaritan to the parable of the prodigal to the power struggle Jesus had to referee among his own apostles in Luke 22:24-27.
“Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.”
Rodney is 17 and autistic…and homeless. His mom is a drug-addicted prostitute. He has no idea who his dad is. After a lifetime of abuse, he left home when he was 14. He’s been living on the streets ever since. Judge him by his appearance and you’ll just think he’s another bum living on the streets. You wouldn’t know any different unless you took the trouble to understand his context.
Culture encourages us to grow increasingly cynical, critical and judgmental. To draw conclusions without due consideration, grace or understanding. Thankfully, Heaven isn’t plagued by such weaknesses.
James 2:1-4 “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Eph. 4:32 “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
It’s the power of others. The power to lead each other. To follow each other as together we follow Christ.
Gal. 6:1, 2 “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Sadly, too often we can’t find anybody with whom we feel safe enough, somebody who cares enough, somebody who won’t be quick to judge or to betray our confidences. The result is loneliness and the potential to slowly drift away from the Faith.
Luke 15:4-7 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
What if compassion, forgiveness, and restoration ruled the day? What if each of us made a difference in helping others remain faithfully in the fold? What if every member of our congregation supplied the rest of us with their unique abilities, talents, and interests?
Eph 4:15, 16 “but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
What is a congregation? It’s not an institution. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s not an organization with a pecking order. It’s the body of Christ. It’s a family. “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Eph 1:22, 23
In Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says that inside this body, headed by Christ, are Christians, members of the body. We’re all fitly framed and knit together by each of us doing our part to help build up and provide increase to the body. Every one of us doing our part to serve others. Each of us willing to let others do the same for us. None of us overcome with envy or jealousy over the abilities of others, but instead behaving out of love according to 1 Cor 13.
Does that describe your congregation? Or is your congregation more like that scene with the apostles bickering over who is going to be the greatest?
Imagine our congregations being as fitly framed together as a luxury home builder might frame a high-end house. No gaps. Square. Plumb. Every joint as ideal as the builder can make it. Each joint important to make the whole house fit more perfectly together.
Imagine our congregations being knit together. So tightly knit together that if God asked any of us the question, “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?” — we’d be ready to answer. Not just because we know their physical location, but because we know how they fare spiritually.
John wrote to Gaius in 3rd John hopeful that his health matched his spiritual prosperity. We can’t achieve spiritual prosperity alone. We need to help each other achieve it.
There was trouble in the 1st-century church. The Jews had a long history of identifying as God’s chosen people. Suddenly, Jesus turned everything upside down by making salvation available to all men, including Gentiles. No longer did it matter where you were born, or what your heritage was. Submit to God’s authority by obeying Jesus and you can secure forgiveness from your sins. The Jews were outraged. Their club suddenly wasn’t exclusive. Never mind that Gentiles being saved robbed the Jews of nothing. They resented any expansion of God’s family. As a result, they found pleasure in judging others. It made them feel better about themselves.
Luke 18:9-14 “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We know this story. We know the stories of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. We know about loving our neighbor and second-mile religion. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s a gap between what we know and what we do.
Judgment, condemnation and criticality come easily. Compassion, grace, mercy, and forgiveness demand thoughtful intentions to seek understanding.
John 13:35 “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How will men know we follow Christ? The Lord said they’ll see how we behave toward each other.
This is God’s ideal plan for our work together in the local congregation. A place of safety. A place of refuge where we can rely on each other for whatever may be lacking. A place typified by forgiveness and redemption. A place much like heaven.
We mostly quote James 5:16 when we offer the public invitation during worship. “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
This verse depicts the true nature of the local congregation. It’s not restricted to a public confession. Mutual service. Mutual benefit. No hierarchy of power. No separate class of priesthood or greatness where some are over others or esteemed more highly. Christians able and willing to confess to each other in private. Confidentially leaning on each other. To lead each other. Following the Lord together.
1Cor. 1:10 “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
Col. 3:12-14 “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”
Imagine being able to rely on other Christians to share your biggest struggles and your toughest temptations. What if we followed the Lord’s design to create cultures inside our congregations where we felt safe enough to be vulnerable so other Christians could help us without judgment, prejudice or betrayal?
Well, that would make the Lord happy. And our efforts would be blessed. The collective energy and accountability would serve to help every member remain in place, doing their part to provide the same support that ligaments serve in our physical body.
Sadly, too often there’s a different reality. A Christian struggling alone in temptation and sin, fearing the critical judgment of others. Fearing if they confess word will spread from one coast to the other. They slowly and quietly slip away because there is no one with whom they feel safe. No one hoisting them on their shoulders to help them back to a place of strength and safety.
How many will remain away because coming home is just too hard? To withstand the superiority of those who never left. Those who like the elder brother to the prodigal declare, “We never left.”
Is there any doubt that the Lord wants us to understand how important it is that we love each other enough to help each other reach heaven? We know what we should do, but maybe we pine that we’re not sure how to do it. It’s not complicated. We make up our minds. We decide.
The formula is powerfully simple according to the Lord. Matt. 6:14, 15 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Leadership is an individual responsibility for each of us. So is following.
In the New Testament the first time we read any form of the word “follow” is in Matt 4:19, 20 “Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.”
Matt. 16:24 “Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
1 Cor 11:1 “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
We need to surround ourselves with faithful Christians who are following Christ. We need to faithfully follow Christ so we can help others do the same. It’s the greatness of godly responsibility.
Permit one final thought. When we refuse compassion, forgiveness, service, and support for one another choosing instead to feel bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and envy…never mind that we’re disobeying God…the problem is we don’t see it that way. Perhaps this might help us. We’re robbing God of glory because we’re fooling ourselves into thinking our righteousness warrants heaven.
Forgiving us makes God happy. Saving us makes God happy. He demands glory because he deserves it. James commands us to avoid jealousy and factions and not to glory in our misbehavior. Instead, we’re to commit ourselves to godly living and give God the glory.
God has done (and continues to do) everything possible to secure our salvation. God is fully committed to helping us reach heaven.
The power of the local congregation – our home congregations – is in the power we have to serve each other with greater understanding, grace, compassion, and service. True leadership is our devotion to God and to each other. It’s our responsibility. It’s also our greatness. We all benefit.
Proverbs 11:25 “The generous soul will be made rich, And he who waters will also be watered himself.”
From a sermon delivered by Randy Cantrell at the 2019 Alabama New Year’s Meeting in Dothan, Alabama on Tuesday, December 31, 2019. Well, about 60% of it was delivered then. I made a rookie mistake when Clint De France, who was conducting the meeting, needed to clear this throat. Three times. I misread it as a signal that it’d be best for me to extend the invitation and end this thing. So I quickly did. -Randy