All posts by philipmt

Phil Thompson is a husband and father who serves as a lay teacher at The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, SC and works in the travel industry. He holds a MA in Theological Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and an MDiv from Columbia International University.

The Sawdust and the 2×4

Many people have heard the analogy that Jesus made (Matt. 7.3-5) about people who try to pick a piece of sawdust out of another person’s eye while they have a 2×4 in their own. The analogy is hilarious, but the implications are serious. I had a few thoughts today on this topic, so I thought I’d share them.

Relation: Sawdust and 2×4’s are similar, yet different

This should go without saying, but both items are byproducts of trees. They’re related by type. But they are drastically different in terms of their size, significance, and effect. The implication here is fascinating. It isn’t that people tend to see *any* kind of fault in the life of another, but that they see *genetically related faults* in the life of another person. The issues that they see in the other person are a categorical reflection of their own sins. When you’re going through a time of life where all you can see is other peoples’ issues, it is time for you to seek out godly counsel for your own heart. Perhaps the things you’re seeing in others is a reflection of a bigger and similar problem of your own.

Prioritization: Sawdust is still a problem

I think some people get the implication that these verses give them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card when it comes to outside critiques. Oddly enough, Jesus uses this analogy only to point out the challenge that the guy with a 2×4 in his head will have in *extricating* the sawdust, but not in his recognition that the sawdust *really is there.* So when some flawed individual comes to you with an issue, still do your best to consider that claim as valid. You may do well to bounce the claim off some accountability partners whose ability to be honest and see your issues clearly is unquestioned, but ignoring the issue entirely isn’t really fair to the analogy.

Categorization: 2×4’s as a new category of problems.

What Jesus is doing with this analogy is incredible. Jesus is pointing out that there is a whole category of sinners that we’re prone to forget about. We often think about sexual sinners or people who commit sins of speech, and so on. But Jesus reminds us that there are a bunch of people out there who walk around with lumber in their faces and haven’t taken the time to remove the problem. The funny thing about this is that we tend to look at the world in right/left perspective. We see conservatives and liberals, religious and irreligious. We see the guy with the 2×4 in his eye socket as someone in one camp or another camp. But Jesus gives us a category that transcends our own. For example, we’ve seen recent examples of hard right fundamentalists and left-leaning liberal Christians attacking notable evangelical leaders. In instances such as this, we’re reminded that 2×4-types transcend our categories. In God’s eyes, these two dissimilar groups in this instance share more in common than we originally would have thought.

Perception: You’d think we could see a 2×4, right?

Related to the previous point, it’s important to remember that if all we do is chat with, read, or befriend are people who share our dendrite problem, we’ll never see it for what it is. We’ll always see the sawdust of others as 2×4’s and receive critiques of our own 2×4 as if people were seeing sawdust. By surrounding ourselves by less than objective voices only from our own carpenter shop, we will consistently fail to recognize the gravity of our situation. And maybe this is part of the value of the church — it provides us with a variegated spectrum of saints who are able to see our problems better than we can ourselves. Seek out accountability not only from those who are most like you, but from those with whom you find little in common.

Concluding Thought: The value of outside accountability

Accountability is important in order to (a) evaluate whether the critiques we make are reflective of our own faults and (b) evaluate whether the critiques we receive are valid. Outside accountability is essential because (a) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our own categories, and (b) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our lack of context.

From Boys to Men: Discipleship for Maturity

For some reason, the pre-teen and early teen years are some of the most important years of a person’s life. These are the years when critical decisions are made that will affect the trajectory of one’s life. And it was in these years that this quirky rail of a homeschooled teenager learned some important lessons about discipleship from two of my Sunday School teachers. I’d like to share these lessons as a tribute to these two childhood heroes of mine.

Discipleship doesn’t mean having all the answers.

I think a lot of us fear engaging others in discipleship relationships because we see that we’re still a work in progress. We see our flaws and our lack of knowledge as a hinderance to effective discipleship. But the two men that had an amazing formative impact in my life would be the first to admit that they didn’t have all the answers either. In fact, it was when we discussed tough theology or wrestled through difficult applications and they admitted the complexity that I was driven back to the Word and to deeper study on my own. Sometimes knowing the right questions to ask is better than knowing the right answers to those questions.

Discipleship doesn’t require someone amazing.

The funny thing about my childhood mentors is that they came from the two segments of the church population that are often the most marginalized and under-utilized: the singles and the divorced. Rather than seeing themselves as exceptions to God’s plan and placing themselves on the bench, these men stepped up and used their gifts anyways. As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think of the army of men and women who are sitting by watching the next generation of the church be mentored by the world, making excuses because they aren’t that hip. But making disciples isn’t a task reserved for the cool and the popular — making disciples is the mandate for *every* believer. And maybe that’s why the sidelined Christians do such a good job at it. Your impact as a discipler will always be disproportionate to who you think you are.
It is quite possible that you feel like you’re one of those sidelined groups in the church. Maybe you’re an older saint who doesn’t feel wanted in the lives of the young and progressive in the congregation. It’s easy to make the assumption that they don’t want you to disciple them and then just check-out. But, guess what, they *really do* desire your investment in their lives! No, they don’t want you to try to make them into little clones, and they aren’t looking for a list of preferences; they want someone to adopt them and grow with them.

Discipleship isn’t about following a program.

Here’s what discipleship looked like for me: cutting the church lawn in the dead of summer, watching thousands of Southwest Airlines 737’s landing at BWI airport, going on homeschooler field trips to historical sites, and gathering before church on Sundays to pray and talk about the Bible. None of this involved a book with pictures and blanks to fill in. None of this happened because someone at the top told them to do this. It happened because a couple guys had a vision and compassion for the next generation of the church. Sometimes our desire for programs and paperwork simply crowd out the real work of discipleship. I want to encourage you to put down the curriculum and pick up someone on your way to church. Stop waiting for administrative guidance and take some guys on a journey that will lead them to Jesus.

Discipleship doesn’t involve accepting the status quo.

Discipleship will break up your routines. If you’re just a Sunday-show-up-and-leave kind of Christian, discipleship is going to make you bend and break. It will demand that you arrange a morning coffee, invest your Saturdays, or turn Sundays into days of all-out ministry. The status quo is all about staying in your comfort zone and catering to your own needs; discipleship is all about breaking out of your comfort zone and ministering to the needs of others. Start small and build from there. Target a opening in your schedule and use it to make the maximum difference.

Discipleship isn’t neat and clean.

If there’s one thing I learned from being discipled by these two men is that discipleship will always cost you something. Maybe it’s the cost of a plane ticket or just a meal. Maybe it’s the time to visit a teen and his family at home. Maybe it’s the physical exertion that it takes to mow the church lawn or get rid of the leaves at a widow’s home alongside your disciple. I don’t know exactly what discipleship will look like for you, but here’s an idea: when you think of discipleship, think of Jesus. Think of guys trudging across the countryside, rowing across a sea in the middle of a storm, or starving hungry trying to figure out where to eat their next meal. This is where the real work of discipleship happens. Discipleship won’t happen as long as we remain in the pristine corridors of our churches or in the comforts of our homes. Discipleship will cost you something.
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Dedicated to Mr. Dave and Mr. Walt — selfless men with an incalculable eternal impact.

5 Necessities for Guys Pursuing Vocational Ministry

For starters, I need to make a few caveats. First, I’m not in ministry yet. I’m certainly headed in that direction, but these are some things I’ve learned while on that path. Second, I haven’t done all of this perfectly. Just because I’m recommending that you do these things doesn’t mean that I was a success in these areas. Finally, even if you aren’t planning on going into vocational ministry, these pointers may help you think about how you or your church can help a guy who is!

A Personal Walk with God

You can fake your content and your efforts for awhile, but, over time, people will see through the facade. Don’t fool yourself into complacency by resting on the results of your teaching in the lives of others; your personal relationship with God is a wholly different matter.
There are several methods of developing your walk that I found particularly helpful as a man preparing for ministry:
  1. Praying Scripture: after you read the passage and certainly before you teach it, take some time to reduce the text into a series of praises and requests. Write these out and pray them to God.
  2. Stillness: As a guy prepping for ministry, your life is a chaotic mess. I’ve been there. Use your commute to school or work as a time for quiet meditation. Turn off the radio. Don’t pull out your phone. Spend some time with God. If you don’t have this opportunity, find another time in your schedule when you can spend this time of quiet and meditation.
  3. Tuning Your Emotions: As a student of Scripture, you’ll be inclined to make the Bible an academic exercise or perhaps a sheer volitional effort. Have you forgotten that the Law of God is a delight? Have you ever told your Father that you love him? Do you get excited about going to worship your God? Do people see your overflowing joy? God wants your whole person: mind, will, and emotions.

Openness and Accountability

Don’t think that your theological studies make you superior to your brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s easy to use your training as an excuse for cloistering yourself and avoiding substantive communication with other believers. This subtle form of superiority undermines the openness and accountability that you desperately need. Staying open about your struggles will go a long way in keeping you humble as you move out into ministry.
These are a number of ways to foster openness and accountability:
  1. Committing to a local church. See below.
  2. Seeking out men from the church to study and pray with. Meet with a group of 4 or 5 guys throughout the week. Engage with them and begin sharing the ways that God is working in your life.
  3. Developing close accountability relationships with 1 or 2 men. Maybe these guys are part of the previous group, but regardless, these men need to be ones that you’re willing to be 100% honest with regarding your struggles. They’ll be able to provide you with invaluable insight as you head into the ministry.
Remember that accountability won’t come to you unless you invite it. Seek it out and don’t tune it out once it starts. Be willing to hear what hurts.

Support from a Local Body of Believers

Find a church and pastor that are willing to invest in you and that you’re going to invest in too. Once you’ve earned the trust of the people and the leadership of the church, begin discussing your goals and needs. Plan to invest at least 3-5 years in this church (this is usually the time that it takes to finish an MDiv). As your gifts become evident in the ministry of this body, they should be willing to take concrete steps to recognize your calling (Acts 13:1). This may involve taking one or more of the following actions:
  1. Formally introducing you to likeminded churches as approved for Gospel ministry
  2. Providing a paid internship
  3. Funding your education
  4. Initiating an ordination council
  5. Hiring you as full-time staff
  6. Becoming your sending church
The level of the church’s willingness and ability to assist you should be gauged about halfway through your planned time of ministry in this church.
If a church is unwilling to assist in a concrete way, you need to probe the reasoning behind this. If the church leadership is reluctant to assist in these ways, you need to determine the reasoning of the leadership. If they believe that you are unqualified for ministry, then you must engage in a period of self-evaluation in order to determine whether or not vocational ministry is the right place for you. In the rare and unfortunate case that the leadership believes that you are qualified, but they don’t have relationships or resources to assist you, then you need to sit down with the leadership immediately in order to structure a plan of action.

Two-Pronged Preparation

Ministry + Academics. You need both of them.
I know plenty of guys who are great at ministry, and so they put their whole efforts into the work of the ministry without putting much effort into their academic preparation for ministry. This approach lends itself to a man finding ministries that will use and abuse him. Often these guys end up burning themselves out and struggling to feed their congregations. By failing to pursue academic training, these pastors only shortchange themselves and their congregants over time.
I also know other guys who’ve mistakenly placed their sole focus on collecting degrees. Often, this misguided course of action is due to the influence of an academically-minded leader in a man’s life. This approach lends itself to a man finding few ministries that are willing to accept him. His grades and studies only go so far in making him a viable candidate for ministry. Failure to gain practical hands-on ministry experience will short-circuit his attempts to enter the ministry.
As you follow the advice of your mentors, be sure not to skew too far towards either of these extremes. Couple your participation in ministry with your preparation for ministry.

Personal Development

I can hardly stress this enough. I’ve seen a lot of peers rush into pastoral ministry and end up making a lot of stupid mistakes because of their immaturity. Here are four areas of personal development that I think guys should work on/allow to happen prior to entering the ministry:
  1. Age and maturity. I’ve seen very few fresh-faced college grads who have the maturity and fortitude for pastoral ministry. Be patient during your 20’s. It’s okay if God in his providence delays your entrance into ministry.
  2. Family. Develop your relationship with your wife and maybe even experience having a child before you head out into ministry. The marriage relationship requires a substantial learning curve, and your first child will also tax you and your wife to the breaking point. Trying to clear these hurdles while also acclimating to the complexities and demands of ministry may be more than necessary. Another advantage of waiting for the blessing of family is that having a family better equips you to deal with the needs of the congregation — most of which have families.
  3. Life experience. Your experience in the corporate world will serve you well in ministry. Pastors who rush into ministry without real-world experience often struggle to make real applications in a number of areas. For example, it’s one thing to tell people in the pew that they need to be sharing the Gospel in their workplaces, but it’s wholly different to be able to explain how to navigate the complexities of the work environment while sharing the Gospel at the same time.
  4. Cultural experience. Read the classics. Read from atheists and heretics. Read the Puritans and Church Fathers. Study creeds and confessions. Watch old and new movies. Listen to a broad range of music and enjoy poetry. Learn a language. Travel. Meet and talk with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Then take all of that experience and bring it into your ministry.
I’ve struggled through the years with what I see as delays in entering ministry, but all along I can see how God has been seasoning and growing me in these areas of personal development.
Are there other necessities that I’ve missed in here? Feel free to add more in the comment section!

3 Legs of the Christian Faith

Recently I’ve given some thought to several facets of the Christian faith that not only serve to make it unique, but are important for adherents to understand and claim as their own. I see these three aspects as legs of a stool: without any one of them, the stool becomes useless.

I would suggest that the Christian faith must be historically-rooted, doctrinally-grounded, and practically-oriented.

Historically-Rooted

The historical roots of Christianity are twofold. First, Christianity is rooted in the authenticity of the historical claims of the Bible. The Scriptures record a series of events which are the roots of our faith. Our faith is rooted in the reality of Creation, the Fall of Man, and God’s redemptive work in the patriarchs, for Israel, and among the nations. The historical fact of the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian belief (1 Cor. 15.17). Pull up the historic roots of Christianity, and you have no Christianity at all.

Second, Christianity is rooted in the history of the church. In other words, the struggles of the church to clarify doctrine and to combat heresy are our own. The martyrs, the pastors, the translators, the reformers, we stand on their shoulders every day that we crack the Bible or consider our beliefs. Pull up the roots of our church history, and, at best, you’re simply reinventing the wheel, at worst, you’re headed away from the broad outline of true Christianity provided by our history.

In an era where the past is seen as irrelevant as the technology and innovation of the present grows by leaps and bounds, we must not forget our history. Don’t bemoan the cumbersome details of Biblical background or reject the study of church history for fear of those that you don’t agree with. Embrace the historical roots of your Christian faith!

Doctrinally-Grounded

There’s something essential about the belief-statements of Christianity. The early church confessed their “credo” (“I believe”) time and again when they met, but many believers today express their concerns about creeds and confessions. We often see statements of faith as too liturgical, too formal, and a little restrictive. But there are dangers when we divorce our Christianity from propositional belief-statements.

I recently read a story about a Christian musician who claimed that because his life reflected Christ, there was little consequence in the doctrines that he believed. In other words, to some, practical expression outweighs doctrinal confession. But I think the biblical model is that neither one outweighs the other. Both are important. Here are a few reasons why the doctrinal leg of Christianity is essential:

  1. Doctrinal grounding keeps us from error (Gal. 1.6-9; Eph. 4.13-15; Tit. 1.9).
  2. Doctrinal grounding is a precious treasure (1 Tim. 6.20; 2 Tim. 1.14).
  3. Doctrinal grounding shapes our practice (Rom. 12.1-2).
  4. Doctrinal grounding is the mark of a Christian (2 John 9-10).

Beware of fuzzy movements that can’t offer a definitive “credo.” Those who say “no creed but Christ” have offered you a creed — a woefully deficient creed, but a creed nonetheless. The stricture and formality of archaic statements of faith shouldn’t scare you away from articulating your own faith similarly. Embrace a doctrinally-grounded Christian faith!

Practically-Oriented

This third leg of the stool is equally essential. True faith is demonstrated in conjunction with works. Take a look at James 2.18:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

In this verse, James gives us a glimpse into the mindset of someone who would bifurcate faith and works. James warns of those who claim to follow Christ, but merely hold to a set of unpracticed beliefs. Instead, James argues that practiced faith is the only kind of faith that matters. His assumption, though, is that works proceed from faith (“faith by…works”) and not that faith exists in a hermetically-sealed confessional vacuum (“faith apart from..works”). It would be erroneous to suppose that James’ argument says that beliefs don’t matter (I suggested otherwise in the prior point), but rather we should see that James wants his readers to equally emphasize their beliefs and their practices that flow from those beliefs.

Let me also take a minute to say that the practical orientation of the Christian faith is the practice of scriptural truth. Propping up Christianity on moralism (I’ve got a more comprehensive list of rules!), comparative success (at least I’m not like that guy!), and favorable subculture (we all do these things in order to make us different) won’t do. It’s like improvising the third leg of the stool out of chopsticks. The result is a certain failure! Sometimes by attempting to create a more substantial practical outworking of our faith, we actually make a more deficient product. Manmade tradition will never replace biblical practice. Christian practice is a serious emotional, intellectual, and volitional engagement with the commands (both positive and negative) of Scripture. It can only come as the result of the fruit of a Spirit-filled, Gospel-changed life.

Don’t buy into the religion of the head, which exclusively focuses on content of belief. Don’t buy into the religion of the hand, which only examines what people do. Don’t accept the religion of history, which dwells only in the past. True Christianity is a faith that equally rests on a rich and accurate history, fixed propositional truth-claims, and the ethical and practical outflow in the lives of those who claim it.