One Idea for Missionary Care in Local Churches

Two units on my team have recently had to come back to the US temporarily. These kind of unexpected returns to the home country are increasingly normal in this year of 2020, due to both the pandemic and the changing security situation in some parts of East Asia. Because of my team members’ return stateside, I have been thinking again these days about caring for missionaries upon reentry.

A few years ago I served as the missions pastor at what would become our own sending church. I inherited a practice there that I want to commend to others as a unique way to honor and care for missionaries who have just returned.

When missionaries returned during that season, we would set aside an entire evening for them to debrief with the whole team of our pastors and their wives. It was a big commitment to make given the number of folks we had overseas and the number of elders as well. But these gatherings always proved to be very sweet times. We’d arrange abundant snacks and beverages, childcare for the missionaries if needed, and then give them our undivided attention for several hours.

The goal was to give them an opportunity to share everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There wasn’t a set agenda for the time other than mingling for a bit, an extended time of listening and Q & A, and then prayer over the missionaries at the end. Yet it was amazing the kind of ground that could be covered in evenings like this. Tears and laughter were not uncommon. It was also a way to show particular honor to our friends who had embraced the costs of the mission field for the sake of the gospel and on behalf of the our church. I’ll never forget the scene of one of our single missionaries sharing her story of serving in SE Asia while all the pastors and wives listened with full attentiveness, seated in the living room and on the floor around her. What an honor, I thought, for this godly woman who may sometimes be overlooked because of her singleness.

When missionaries return to their home country, they are in need of a ministry of listening. Despite other kinds of honor and attention, it’s rare that they actually get to share in depth about their time overseas. Yet there is often a need to process what actually happened, to figure out what the high points and low points were, and to begin the path toward healing after the scars of the previous ministry season. This comes most often through verbal processing with trusted counselors.

There is also the need to be reminded of who they are in Christ and that there is a body of leaders behind them who know them and vouch for them. Many missionaries have such hard seasons on the field that they come back questioning their calling and their fit in the task. These types of conversations with pastors can be key to preventing missionaries from being swayed too much by the attacks and trials that they have experienced. As they pour out their hearts to their shepherds, this can be the beginning of their passion and confidence in their calling being restored.

As a missions pastor, there were other benefits as well. This kind of gathering helped to keep missions front and center for all of our church’s elders. It also provided a rare opportunity for us to actually get together with all the other pastors and their wives for a time centered around our missionary friends. In a fast-paced and time-oriented culture, it was an evening where we got to be event-oriented together, letting our missionaries share as long as they needed to (After all, most missionaries become more event-oriented the longer they are on the field). Also, missions pastors tend to have certain kinds of gifts and not others, so I was always helped by the wise questions and different kinds of insights that came when all the diverse pastors and wives were interacting with our sent ones. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 24:6).

My encouragement to my teammates heading back home was to request this kind of a time with pastors, mentors, or friends soon after they get back. If asked how the church can serve you, it’s not selfish or silly to ask for an evening where you can share everything you need to, unfiltered, with those who have sent you out. This kind of time can be the beginning of processing the victories and losses of your previous term in a healthy way. Getting to share so fully in a setting like this also helps when the relatives or fellow church members don’t really take an interest in the details or stories of our time overseas. Even one chance to get it all out there and be prayed over can be very restorative.

My encouragement to any pastors out there reading this is that you also consider how to implement some kind of expression of this time. The actual format and details of this suggestion are not as important as the principle: Local churches can serve their returning missionaries by providing a context where they can share their heart, in depth and at length, with trusted leaders. The applications of this could be as varied as the unique makeup and contexts of local churches. But any church that pursues this kind of ministry of listening in order to serve their missionaries will be caring for them well, even in a manner worthy of God (3rd John 6).

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A Song For Those Longing For Humble Leadership

Listen on, listen in 
Have you seen my Master? 
You ask is He like those I’ve met 
Or kings with slaves in number 
They cheat their way to glory’s seat 
Lay burdens on mens’ shoulders 
Their fingers soft their knees too weak 
Unmet by work or prayers 

Served the man who served Him death 
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him 
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced 
By a heart that didn’t understand 
My Master is a humble man 
When He knew His hour had come 
He kept His cup tight in hand 
How great it’d be to see Him old 
Still how much better the way He chose 
He chose 

Served the man who served Him death 
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him 
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced 
By a heart that didn’t understand 
Then to hang on a hill He died 
With the company of thieves on His left and on His right 
Said one man ‘Remember me if You can’ 
And He gave it all to him 

Even when no one saw 
He loved us to the end 
Even when everyone ran off 
He loved us to the end 
Even when we have to stare through the holes 
In his hands 
He loved us to the end

“He Loved Us To The End” by Poor Bishop Hooper

He Must Manage His Household Well

A name great and renowned, but a village broken down.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the importance of a leader’s immediate circle and responsibilities. He may have an impressive reputation, but the state of his household and village tell a lot about his real character and leadership. If teaching locals on the eldership qualifications from 1st Timothy chapter 3, I would use this local proverb as one way to illustrate the statement that an overseer must “manage his own household well” (1st Timothy 3:4). Ground the teaching in the text, illustrate it with the culture. In this case, with the oral tradition.

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Some Will Walk Away Because We’re Not Conservative Enough

[1] Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, [2] through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, [3] who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. [4] For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, [5] for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)

We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.

Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.

In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!

And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.

For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.

As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.

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Holding Our Timelines Loosely

As a leader, I have been greatly helped by the concept of holding our principles tightly while holding our applications loosely – e.g. major on the importance of evangelism, but allow for a healthy range of biblical evangelistic methods. Too many of us are majoring on the applications in a narrower way than the Scriptures do. The implications of this simple principle could defuse much conflict on the mission field (and in the church) and lead to some great work being done. Alongside this concept comes the related idea of holding our timelines for those applications loosely as well. In our zeal to implement biblical principles, we can all too easily move too quickly, and thereby risk losing our people and undermining our ultimate goal.

I remember hearing Pastor Brian Croft of Practical Shepherding share a story of church reform, where the slower timeline made all the difference. After teaching through the concept of biblical eldership, a pastor came to a members meeting where they were to vote on moving from a single-pastor model to a plurality of elders model of leadership. The pastor knew that they would be able to get just enough votes for it to pass, but he also sensed that in doing so he risked losing older members of the congregation. He decided to defer the vote to a future meeting. In the time that passed between the meetings, the pastor realized that the term elder itself was at the source of much of the opposition. When he switched to speaking about the proposed changes using the biblically appropriate synonym of a plurality of pastors, the opposition evaporated. Turns out there had been an underlying fear that elders were some kind of Presbyterian thing that was being smuggled into a historic Southern Baptist church. By choosing to wait, this misunderstanding came to light, a contextual linguistic shift was made, and those who might have been lost by the change were instead won over.

It has been said that the number one mistake of “young, restless, and reformed” church planters and church reformers is moving to a plurality of elders too quickly. We could probably restate this to say that our number one mistake is trying to implement applied structures of biblical principles too quickly. It’s so easy to do. You chew on a biblical understanding of the local church for years, grow a deep affection for seeing it lived out, then you find yourself in a leadership position over a church or a team – and so you try to change everything at once. The results of this approach (often implosion) can be easily understood from a distance. The time that it took for the leader to see the truth and to love the truth has not been in turn given to those he is leading. Clarity on biblical principles and methods takes time when you are working with real people. What seems so obvious to you today is in reality the result of the Spirit patiently leading you toward greater clarity and affection over an extended period of time.

There is also the issue of trust. Trust takes time to grow, often more than two years – which turns out to be the point at which most pastors leave their church. I don’t know the stats for how long the average team leader overseas stays in his role, but I know that in our region we have incredible turnover. To build real trust with those we are leading takes a long-term posture. When those we are leading are really convinced we are for them and committed to them, then they will feel less threatened by our proposed changes. Because of these things, we should default to moving slowly in the first two to three years, trusting that the necessary trust is being built that will make for lasting, healthy change.

I am as guilty as anyone at introducing changes too quickly. I tend to chew on something slowly for a long time, like a doner kabob gradually roasting and rotating on the spit. Then all of the sudden I cut. off some shwarma, meaning I make up my mind and introduce a change – only to find others are not at all ready for it! Having learned this about myself through lots of trial and error, I am growing in my appreciation for the slower track, where incremental growth in the right direction is celebrated, even if it takes us five years to get to a place where the applications of our principles are mature. If unity is growing around the biblical principles, if those we lead are growing in their excitement about where we are going, then we can be patient with different paces of progress toward that destination.

This holding loosely to our timelines can also help those we are leading, as we assure them that we are not in a rush. There is time to wrestle with emphases, teaching, and methods that feel or sound different. How many of those that we lead have lived through the coming and going of many leaders and fads? Their hesitancy to be all-in with our plans shouldn’t surprise us. But hopefully our grace, patience, and genuine friendship can surprise them.

Yes, there comes a time when we must act, and act decisively. Not all delay is godly. At some point it becomes sin. I do not recommend dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing gradually. And yet most of our people are not wolves, but sheep who need patient under-shepherds. There is also wisdom in recognizing the common error of our generation – that of going too fast, not going too slow. We are generally in a rush to implement our vision and see things change overnight – still showing the truth of the old African term for Westerners, mzungu, those who run around in circles.

Let us hold our timelines loosely when it comes to leading others toward biblical faithfulness. As much as possible, let us celebrate incremental growth in the right direction, while we keep holding out biblical principles. Put that desired change on the five-year or ten-year plan and commit it to constant prayer. If we do this, I think our future selves will thank us.

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What Four Years of Elders Meetings Taught Me About Team Unity

There is tremendous power for unity in a practical theology of the body of Christ. For two years I was able to sit in on elders meetings at my church as part of a leadership development program. Then for two more years I was able to participate in elders meetings as an elder myself, before we left for the mission field. What I observed in those four years of meetings has continued to shape the way I work for team unity among my teammates on the field.

Like many young men with a heart for ministry, there was a time when I thought that my personal set of spiritual gifts was somehow superior to others’. I would not have said this, but I know at times I felt it. Or at least I failed to feel down in my bones an appreciation for gifts that were different than mine, which is almost the same thing. This is where observing the elders meet together was so helpful for me. Here was a group of men, a group very diverse in terms of age, background, personality, and gifting. And yet they worked well together, appreciated their differences, and even celebrated them. The one gifted in preaching would praise the one gifted in systems, who would praise the one gifted in wisdom, who would praise the one gifted in the biblical languages. They would lean on one another in the tasks in which they were weaker. They not only knew that their differences made them a better team of shepherds, they actually believed and felt this, even in the midst of disagreement. And I began to believe and feel it as well.

The diverse gifts given to the body of Christ, the Church, are described in passages like 1st Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1st Peter 4. These and other passages put together give us a robust theology of the body of Christ. Christ has ascended, and in doing so has given gifts to every single believer, though not the same ones. Each believer has gifts with which they are able to uniquely build up the body of Christ in love, and each believer is in need of the gifts of the rest of the body, just as the different members of the human body need one another. All are to be honored, none are to be despised, even though some gifts are more powerful for edification than others. All gifts are spiritual, though some seem to us more supernatural than others. Through these gifts we serve and teach one another, display God’s power to the lost, and we glorify the giver of these gifts, knowing that they come from him and are not of our own making.

Before sitting in on elders meetings, I could have written you a decent theological paper laying out these truths in detail. But in order to really make this theology practical I needed to see it modeled. Here’s a plug for any pastors out there thinking through raising up leaders – make sure there are places where the men you are raising up can observe you modeling leadership, in addition to the good content they are learning. Modeling enables others to learn things practically and intuitively which complements study that is heavy on the abstract and on the knowledge necessary for leadership.

Now that we are on the mission field, we are trying in turn to pass on these biblical principles to our teammates. It has been said that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. I believe this. But a lived theology of the body of Christ can not only hold missionary teams together, it can even cause them to flourish and to be powerfully effective, even in the midst of disagreement.

Our previous team was made up of three families, all very different from one another in personality, culture, and giftings. We had our fair share of conflict and times where we drove each other crazy. But God was gracious to us, we ate a lot of good kabob together, and we came to genuinely appreciate one another’s friendship and diverse spiritual gifts. Together we saw a small church planted in the hard soil of Central Asia. We reached an important stage of maturity as a team when we were able to openly affirm one another in the ways we were individually gifted, rather than seeing one another as a challenge or threat. We grew in doing this in team meetings and even in front of the local believers, who were prone to comparing us to one another. By emphasizing my teammate’s gifts, I could not only encourage them and remind myself of how much I need them, I could also model for locals how to honor believers they are very different from. Practically, I could also lean on my teammates’ pastoral and preaching gifts, their energy for life and language, their hospitality and sharp minds for making detailed plans and arguments. And they in turn could lean on me in other areas.

Now we have taken on a new leadership role with a different team, even larger and more diverse than our previous one. Our prayer is that this practical theology of the body of Christ will soak deep down into the foundation of who we are as a team. To see a fellow believer a little bit more like Christ sees them, as a saint uniquely gifted by the ascendant king – that is a powerful force for team unity.

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Whence The Self-Perpetuating Hierarchy

With the deaths of the apostles (apostoloi, or envoys), who had been the chief conveyors of Jesus’s message, the role of the bishop grew; and by the beginning of the second century we find him being treated in a more exalted manner – as a successor to the dead apostles and symbol of unity for the local congregation – but still the appointee of his congregation. As its symbol of he was duty-bound to consult his congregation in all important matters. “From the beginning of my episcopacy,” the aristocratic Cyprian of Carthage, monumental bishop of third-century Africa, confided to his clergy, “I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people.”

By the end of Augustine’s life, such consultation was becoming the exception. Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; and bishops could no longer rely on the opinion of their flocks – increasingly, uninformed and harried illiterates – nor, in all likelihood, were they averse to seeing their own power grow at the expense of the people. In many districts, they were already the sole authority left, the last vestige of Roman law and order. They began to appoint one another; and thus was born – five centuries after the death of Jesus – the self-perpetuating hierarchy that rules the Catholic church to this day.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 61-62

Babylonian Seminary

[3] Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, [4] youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. [5] The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. [6] Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. [7] And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:3-7 ESV)

I’ve recently started reading the book of Daniel again. While the book of Daniel is full of amazing theology, history, and prophecy, today I only want to take one obscure point and with that point to poke popular missiology. Here is that point: Daniel and his friends were asked to study the language, literature, and religious practices of the Babylonians for three years before they were qualified to serve as leaders in pagan Babylonia.

Why does this matter? Popular missiology (the study and practice of missions) contends that multi-year seminary-type preparation of leaders is a modern Western concept. It claims that for the needs of the Great Commission today, we should jettison such slow, non-reproducible, knowledge-centric leadership training. In its place we need to create streamlined rapidly-reproducible leadership lessons that pump out leaders at a much faster rate – something like ten leadership development participatory bible studies. After all, can’t we trust the Spirit of God and the word of God to raise up qualified leaders? Why should we ask locals to sit under training for so long and under the instruction of foreign teachers? God forbid we train leaders in ways that echo those of the older Western paternalist missionaries, stuck in their colonialist mindsets. We are beyond that, aren’t we?

My contention is a simple one. Multi-year leadership training is a global concept, one embraced by all epochs of church history and even practiced before church history began. It’s not a modern Western imposition on the rest of the globe, even if we grant the questionable point that if something is Western then that automatically means it should be jettisoned. Multi-year leadership training is a simple outworking of what many civilizations have found to be universal wisdom – it takes some years to really know a man and to impart to that man the knowledge and skill necessary to lead well. This was not only true of ancient pagan Babylon, but also of the ancient Christian training centers of Edessa, Gond-i-Shapur, Ireland, and the those medieval European centers of clergy training that would form the basis of our modern university system. Jesus himself invested three and a half years in those who would become the first leaders of the global Church.

While living in the US, for three years I took part in a church-based pastoral apprenticeship. Then after I graduated, I helped to lead that apprenticeship for two more years. Though I was skeptical in the beginning about the length of time being asked by the elders (three years?!), over time I came to see the wisdom of taking the slow route when it came to raising up pastors, missionaries, and church planters. Sometimes a man would make it two and a half years through the program only to flame out in the final year, some character or doctrinal issue finally bubbling up to the surface. It was often very surprising when this happened, and this in our own language and culture, where we have a much easier ability to discern character and belief. On the other hand, for the vast majority of the men that made it through the apprenticeship, at the end of those three years we could say with confidence that we really knew their life and doctrine. Many of these have now gone out as pastors, church-planters, and missionaries and are raising up leaders in their own contexts.

But what about Paul? Didn’t he appoint elders much more quickly than this in the churches he planted? Yes, there is some evidence in the book of Acts that Paul didn’t always take years to train and assess potential leaders before they were appointed. This is a valid point, and one worth exploring further. But it’s the whole counsel of the word we need here, not just the book of Acts. When the instructions for leader qualification of 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (written by Paul) are taken seriously, we will often find that it takes years to soberly assess and inculcate these character traits and skills in the men of our churches – especially when we are working in a different language and culture. And this should probably be considered normal. Who, after all, plants lasting churches as quickly as Paul did? So shouldn’t it be normal if our leadership development runs a little slower than his did also? I for one recognize that there are some real discontinuities between my gifts and Paul’s, just as there are also some continuities. That capital or lower-case “A” in apostolic makes a real difference. But I digress from my simple point.

If anyone states that multiyear leadership training is a Western concept (and therefore bad), that person is simply speaking ahistorically. It’s popular to take pot-shots at seminary in missions circles. Yet the common witness of the Church throughout the centuries has been that an investment of years in faithful men leads to trustworthy leaders, who will then be able to train others also (2 Tim 2:2). What may be truly Western (in the bad sense) would be methods that insist that leaders can be multiplied rapidly and exponentially like some kind of pyramid scheme.

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So Choose Your Words Carefully

Cicero, born in the century before Christ, exercised his techniques when republican Rome, in all its vigor, welcomed public men. Augustine loved Cicero, as did the whole Latin world, which placed the Roman orator just below Virgil on the divinity charts. (Jerome, the cantankerous translator of the Latin Bible, awoke one night in a frenzied sweat: he had dreamed that Christ had condemned him to hell for being more of a Ciceronian than a Christian.) The ancients held the practical use of words in much higher regard than we do, probably because they were much closer to the oral customs of prehistoric village life – so clearly reflected in Nestor’s speech to the Greek chieftains in the Iliad and in Mark Antony’s speech over Julius Caesar’s body – in which the fate of an entire race may hang on one man’s words.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 47

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What’s Up With the Male Head Coverings in Corinth?

1st Corinthians 11, with its discussion about head coverings, has been called one of the most confusing chapters in the Bible. Often the discussion about this chapter zeroes in on whether or not women are universally required to wear head coverings in the church, or whether this requirement was a local/historical application of a universal principle. I lean toward the latter, finding the case compelling which advocates that Corinthian female head coverings were a sign of modesty and faithfulness among the married women of the Greco-Roman world. So today, whatever forms communicate that principle of modesty and faithfulness in a contemporary culture would be a good way to apply 1st Corinthians 11 to the ladies of our churches.

But what about the men? Why would men in Corinth desire to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in the church? This is why I love learning about the New Testament background and culture. As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Check out this revealing note from the ESV Archeology Study Bible:

Roman statuary depicts emperors and senior magistrates as partially covering their heads with fold of their togas when offering a public sacrifice (“praying”) or reading its entrails (“prophesying”). Paul instructs the Corinthian men not to dishonor Christ by praying to him in the same way that others addressed false gods such as Apollo. By praying with their heads uncovered, they show they are praying in a new way and worshiping a different deity than their pagan neighbors.

ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1710

That’s right. Roman emperors and other officials covered their heads to pray and prophesy. There’s even a statue from Corinth of Caesar Augustus doing this very thing (pictured above).

So how in the world do you apply this underlying principle of countercultural worship forms to the men of contemporary churches, whether in the west, the global south, or among the unreached people groups of the world? In some contexts it might be simpler than others. Where we serve in Central Asia, we should apply this by raising up men who preach and pray and even dress differently enough from the mullahs and imams of the mosque that it’s clear that they are worshipping different deities. The god of the Qur’an is not the same God of the Bible and the apostle Paul would have that distinction reflected in the public praying and prophesying of men in the church.

How would this be applied in the post-Christian West? I’m not quite sure, and I would welcome help in fleshing this out. Who would be the equivalent of the emperor and other Greco-Roman officials? Perhaps the political, business, and culture leaders. And the equivalent of making a civic religion sacrifice and reading its entrails? Perhaps any false-salvation narrative held up publicly by one of these leaders, whether that be a president promising the answer is revived nationalism, an opposition promising liberation from oppression by means of more government regulation, or a tech titan on stage promising life change through their latest generation technology. Men in the church, do you sound like them when you pray and speak in the gathered assembly of believers? Or is there enough different about your public presentation that it’s clear you serve a different God?

And in the realm of the painfully obvious, don’t wear a toga to church and during prayer drape it over your head. A form that risked gospel clarity in Corinth, for us, would at least risk appropriate gospel gravity.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons