View the Tools of the Trade Index
Anthrax & Antidote — Becoming Biblically Wise in Times of Spiritual Terrorism
By David W. Argue
Anthrax. In the days following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we heard daily reports about the spread of anthrax. An “innocent” white powder; spores in the air that were inhaled; a brush on the skin that went undetected; microscopic portions that can hide undetected, and later seriously injure, even kill; an innocuous letter (from a child?) becomes another plot of terrorists. A nation rushes to another alert, not knowing whose life will be threatened next. Powdered sugar is suspect.
Anthrax is not unlike the spiritual terrorism the people of God face every day. What seems innocent, turns deadly. What is hidden, later destroys. The “angel of light” actually bears the plots of hell.
And what is our defense? How can the pastor maintain spiritual health in the face of the insidious schemes of an invisible enemy? How can he* protect his people from the insidious attacks of a ruthless enemy? The answer: pastors must become biblically wise.
Let me suggest some ways I have learned as a pastor that strengthen my spiritual health and the spiritual health of my people.
The Biblically Wise Pastor Recognizes the Solid Foundation in God’s Word
The comprehensive lab to ferret out any spiritual danger and to help maintain spiritual health at all times is the Word of God. The Word tells us: “Lean not on your own understanding.” “Do not be wise in your own eyes,” but “fear the Lord” and “keep my commands in your heart” for “this will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7,1,8).** The expert analysis, the psychological theory, the how-to formulas of popularized wisdom may actually lead us into misdiagnosis and creeping death.
Today, 1,000 new books have been published, and a myriad of information has been posted on countless Web sites. I will come to know only a miniscule portion of even the relevant things for ministry available today. But I do not despair or fear that I will fall prey to the sickness of our times. Instead, I take comfort in knowing that as I personally grow deeper in God’s Word—and lead others into the wisdom of the Book — the Word in itself has the ability to bring me, and every person to whom I minister, to a place of being “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).
In a culture where the rapidity of change and the tensions in our world promote fear, stability and calm reign within when I remember that “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24,25).
The Biblicaly Wise Pastor Recognizes the Authority and Inspiration of God’s Word
I am a pastor. I am a generalist in many ways. I am responsible to be aware of my world, observe the patterns of our culture, and think through issues intelligently. My primary call and responsibility, however, is to be a person of the Word. If the Word is not my primary foundation, and instead becomes one resource among many, then I have failed both the people I serve, and even more, the God who called me and gave me His Word.
How easy it is to become familiar with the Word of God. How easy it is to cease to see it for what it is — the very words of God to keep our lives, and those of the people we serve, robust, and healthy.
“The Bible is the Word of God. He spoke it. It issued from His mouth. The term inspiration means neither that God breathed into the human authors to heighten their perception of truth, nor that He breathed into their writings in order to somehow change human prose into divine poetry, but rather that the words they spoke were actually breathed out of His mouth. The emphasis is not on the transformation of truths, which were already there (in the minds or words of the prophets), but on the origination of truths which were not there until God thought and spoke them.”1
I recently read Psalm 119 to catalog all of the descriptive words and phrases the Word uses to describe itself in that Psalm. Among the dozens of expressions are these: precepts that are to be fully obeyed, decrees, commands, the laws that come from your mouth, the way of truth, your righteous laws, (what is) eternal and stands firm, (what makes) me wiser than my enemies, fully trustworthy, thoroughly tested, forever right, (what) lasts forever.
The Biblically Wise Pastor Recognizes the Need To Be Immersed in God’s Word
Without question, the proper understanding and administration of God’s Word is the key to the transformation of people to the authority that drives back the forces of evil, and to the authenticity of a church standing in prophetic boldness before this culture.
As pastor, my enduring and most critical calling is to “let the word of Christ dwell in you [me] richly as you [I] teach and admonish” (Colossians 3:16). As I make that my primary objective, as Christ promised, the Word will permeate everything I think, say, and do. My mouth always will speak from that which fills my heart (Matthew 12:33–37).
I can take a diagnostic reading of my life and the people I pastor by asking: How much does the Word enter into the flow of the conversations we share? Is Scripture consulted only in teaching times, or is it permeating my/our thinking to the point that its truths, phrases, and promises become a part of the interactions we share?
When I set forth truth in any format, I must make certain that what I am advancing is the counsel of the Word. I must not use Scripture to authorize my own wisdom about a matter. I must let Scripture set the tone and provide the focus for what I believe.
The only way this will happen is if I love God with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and regularly sit under the counsel of Scripture. I must teach those who follow me to do the same.
In conversation, counsel, and public prayer I will move people toward spiritual health as I exhibit a continual reliance on the Word of God as the way I maintain true spiritual health and strength.
“The research suggests that most people’s worldview is little more than a collection of fragmented ideals mindlessly adopted from pop culture. Only one out of three adults read the Bible and only one out of 10 study it. It’s no wonder Americans have tremendous spiritual hunger, but no consistent spiritual growth.”2
For a long time, the analogy the apostle Paul cites has been my mental picture of what I am doing at the start of most days. He writes that Christ cleans up the Church and makes her holy “by the washing with water through the word.” This Word-washing brings forth radiance, removes stains and blemishes, and brings the Church to be “holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:26,27).
At the start of most days I take a shower in the Word. For a long time I have made a practice to simply read on and on—book after book in the Bible—in a continual process of letting the whole counsel of God shower down on my mind. I don’t try to read through the Bible in a year—though that can be a worthy objective. Instead, I read and let the Bible read through me. This is a process that moves me at varied paces. At times, I read slowly. In other contexts, where there is repetition or the theme of the book is less applicable to my journey at the time, I read rapidly.
Reading and reflecting on Scripture is always accompanied by using pencils of various colors. Throughout all of Scripture I trace themes and key concepts. Doing such engages the heart and mind. It produces contextual reading—reading theologically. I often jot questions, reactions, and ideas in the margins. Expression continually deepens the impression of the Word on my mind and frequently fashions the mode of my prayer.3 On and on, day after day, the Word washes over my soul, scrubbing off the cultural anthrax that could otherwise bring its creeping disease, even death.
The awesome cleansing power of the Word was proven to me one summer during my college years when I worked at a steel mill. The crew I was assigned to was so filthy-mouthed that, in spite of my desire to be salt and light to them and enter into lunchtimes with them, I finally felt I had to withdraw during lunchtime and try to regain my inner stability. So, I began to eat in a quiet place, my pocket New Testament in hand. As I ate, I simply read. With systematic precision, I discovered the scrubbing, cleansing power of the Word as it washed my mind from the filth and prepared my spirit to go back on shift with fresh, spiritual health to share.
As I finish my own reading of each book in the Bible, I enter the month and year after the last verse. The long list of dates now bears witness that my journey in the Word is continual and meaningful. I know too, that my whole person is being exposed to the whole counsel of God.
The Biblically Wise Pastor Recognizes the Need To Expose His People to God’s Word
From my personal time in the Word come ideas that bring the church into the flow of the whole Word. Here are a few ways my personal time in the Word has shaped my sermons.
• I issued a Bible-reading challenge to the church by distributing an empty chart full of tiny indexed squares, one box for each chapter in the Bible. Each box was to be colored following a code as successive chapters were read. The conclusion of the reading through Scripture brought this surprise: each person had fashioned in his or her coloring a simple portrait of Christ. My people received two messages. Along the way, we had Bible readers’ parties to celebrate our progress and share our joy.
• A recent summer series, “Majors From the Minors,” focused on discovering and applying to our culture the most central theme in each of the Minor Prophets. I asked the congregation to read the next book under study. “Read all the footnotes too,” I advised, “and see if you come up with the same theme I do.”
• A series from the Book of Proverbs focused on unscrambling the great treasures of wisdom that are interwoven throughout that book. I gave the people the title in advance and asked them to read for themselves and ferret out all the verses from that great book that applied to that theme. “See if you agree with me,” I challenged them.
• The public reading of the whole Bible prior to the first meeting in our new auditorium sent a message to the whole church that every page of God’s Word is inspired and holds truth for all of us. What healing came to some who discovered that their assignment was to read the long lists of difficult names. It seemed to them that the Spirit said within, You see now how much I care about everyone. I care about you, too. Others were deeply moved as entire families came to read together. Little children were led in their reading by instructive parents.
• I challenged the church to read the Book of Acts and make two kinds of marks in the margin: a circle (o) by every verse that indicates that God loves every person and offers salvation in Christ to all, and a star (*) beside every verse that states that Christ is the only way to God. There is, in fact, “no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The two concepts of universality (o) and particularity (*) sit side by side throughout the book.4 This is a most valuable study throughout all of Scripture to guard our minds against the trend to subtly affirm all faiths as somehow moving everyone toward one God and one eternal destiny.
It is always a challenge to maintain personal and private integrity in Scripture when faced with the continual demands of public ministry. Among the most helpful marriages I have found between my personal journey in Scripture and my public teaching of a text has been to briefly study and journal through a biblical text as a part of my own daily time in the Word, well in advance of when I will be teaching it.
A helpful method I often utilize involves reading the passage carefully and thoughtfully, making notes of key concepts and words, writing out my own random ideas and thoughts, and asking the hard questions that might come to mind. Then I come up with the basic idea of the passage. A one-volume commentary on the Bible is useful as a check to make certain my thinking is headed in a sound direction.
Finally, I seek to apply the truth of that passage to my own life. This approach yields a personal journal that details my own authenticity in thinking about the Word and describes my own journey in response to the Word. This process produces more reflective thought (free from the pressures of deadlines) and ample personal illustrations (from a text already personally experimented with and learned from). My teaching from this passage can then ring with greater authenticity and depth.
A word about interpreting Scripture is important. A rule of thumb: if you are citing a verse, read the chapter it is found in, making sure you have the context in hand.5 If you are teaching a chapter, read the section of the book it is found in. Always read widely for the context.
Recently I was startled by this verse: “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish” (Proverbs 31:6). In pencil, I wrote in the margin: “not a good verse for the city mission!” But then I noted the context. The context indicates that those who rule must stay clear of wine so they will rule well and not forget what God wants them to do. The advice, which at first appeared to be shocking, actually comes as evidence of the misfortune of those who are perishing and in anguish. It is not the counsel of Scripture for those who want to walk in a pattern of wise living and ruling.
We are all called to be expositors of God’s Word. “Preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2) is the charge that Paul gave to Timothy, and that all pastors have received from Christ, the head of the Church.
This teaching of God’s Word is called exposition — a speaking that brings forth the meaning that is in the text. Too often, however, our teachings can be characterized as imposition rather than exposition.
Imposition occurs when our thought is what leads us, and the Word of God is marshaled behind it. Imposition leads easily to placing our burdens on people. Exposition, because it is founded in God’s character and nature, will lead to the burdens being His and also being “light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
The last thing I do each week in preparation to preach is to draft an outline of the notes I will use as I instruct the church in the truth of Scripture. This outline is given to everyone who comes. In these notes are the outline of what I will preach, and the key text or texts that I will cover. I normally put far more biblical material and reference into the notes than I can possibly cover. I want the church to know what a rich treasure the Word of God is. I want them to take the notes into their personal life and look up more and more of God’s Word for themselves. I make the notes rather complete in basic form (no fill-in-the-blanks) so I can move with latitude and freedom, in and beyond the notes. The high value of following the spontaneity of the Spirit can be preserved. Most of all, I want all who come to worship to have in hand evidence that this church is being built on the Word of God.
For each time I have spoken to this church, I have added to a teaching index that now comprises a small volume in my study. Each entry begins with the date, then the text, then the key truth that was presented. Periodically, I review this flow of teaching. I ask myself:
1. Am I giving the church I pastor the whole counsel of God?
2. Am I balancing between textual exposition that moves successively through a book of the Bible, and the need to address pressing topical matters of study? (I vary the approach here, reserving the option to break from longer textual studies to cover pressing issues not in focus in the text we happen to be currently studying.)
3. Am I adequately addressing the central doctrines of the church? (Idea: How about taking our Statement of Fundamental Truths and putting the index number of the specific doctrine alongside the list of sermons and texts that represent what you have taught? Are you covering the essentials?)
4. Am I addressing topics that are pressing in our culture and giving the church the chance to think biblically about them? (Idea: Take a volume, such as The Complete Guide to Everyday Christianity — IVP, 1997, edited by Robert Banks and Paul Stevens, and browse the index. Doing this will give you a quick read on significant practical issues that your congregation may be facing. Are you teaching with breadth?)
Biblical health for your church flows out of your own health in the Word of God. Anthrax, terrorism, fear, uncertainty—all have their antidote in the Word of God. Be a practitioner of the Word so this verse may be written about the people within the reach of your ministry: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave” (Psalm 107:19,20).
David Argue was founding pastor of Christ’s Place Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he served for 3 decades. He currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is director of pastoral care for the Rocky Mountain District of the Assemblies of God. He has also served as executive presbyter for the General Council of the Assemblies of God. Now he offers ministry that can strengthen, stabilize, and refresh congregations and those who serve them.
*Inclusive of both men and women pastors.
**Scripture references are from the New International Version.
1. John Stott, Authentic Christianity, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 92.
2. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church, (Nashville: Word, 1998), 135.
3. Recently I read through Psalms and marked every place where the major names and characteristics of God could be found—the descriptives of who He is in His own nature. That now provides a marvelous base for prayer in faith, and entering His gates with thanksgiving.
4. I have placed one of these marks in the margins of Acts 27 times.
5. How important it is to do this with a verse such as Philippians 4:13.