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We Need Counsel In The Church, Part1

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“Counsel” is what we consider to be that arm of gospel application that restores the addict and comforts the victim. By all means, it is certainly that. How desperately does the addict need to become a new creation who worships and enjoys God most! How desperately does the afflicted one need to see the God who really is and reinterpret what their life’s story really says! These are great testimonies, when those on the fringes are rescued: their eyes turned to God and their wounds bound. It is not bad in and of itself to think: “They really need biblical counsel to turn them back to God.” We long for God to make light of the “tough cases” just as Jesus made light of the extreme shame of the cross. God is greater than any circumstance.

But if that is all we think when we think of counsel, then there are at least two things we’re not seeing clearly. First, the fringes are not the lives of “them out there” but rather of “us in here.” The church is full of people living on the fringes, but our Sunday facades will not quickly reveal this. Second, the real fringes may not always look like the fringes. We ignore certain addicts and hardened sufferers because they don’t cause much visible disruption. In this post, I want to consider the first issue: that we, not they, live on the fringes. In the next post, we’ll consider the second issue.

In Knoxville, worldly shame carries a lot of weight. We actively avoid appearing like we are something shameful even if we know we are not that thing. Perception is enough to move us to active avoidance to protect our reputation. We pacify serious situations with jokes. And if we are something society holds shameful, then so long as nobody knows about it (or it’s “in the past”), we are not ashamed. The judgments of other people matter a lot to most of us. What they see and find out matters as much as, if not more than, what is actually true. What does this mean for Legacy Church? It means that sin will mostly be hidden, even in the leadership. Sundays are simply not the main context for real community work. The only time shame is exposed is when a certain level of trust is reached or when the person grows into Godly shame and out of worldly shame.

The problem with a culture that thinks counsel is only for the really serious situations is that we might actually run across maybe 1% of serious situations out in the open. The stigma of certain struggles along with the stigma of seeking counsel combine to further alienate the struggling person. For sure, it is their own sin at work that truly alienates them. Yet Galatians 6 basically says, “you who think you are high, if you are indeed high, then you will come low and get your hands dirty with the lowly!” Do we blame tough circumstances for the alienation of the struggling? By no means, their own sinful desires do that. But are we not commanded by Christ to skillfully and whole-heartedly pursue the afflicted and needy just as God pursued us? Yes and amen! And we will be held to account for this. If having a restrictive church culture does not move us to concern and action, then we really need to see God’s pursuit of us more clearly.

The point is that we don’t just need counsel for “those people out there.” We really do need it for “us in here.” We don’t have to look beyond our walls to find lives in desperate need of redemption, though we certainly do counsel evangelistically as well. There is plenty of overwhelming suffering, disillusionment, addiction, and bewilderment inside Legacy Church, in us. Most of it, likely even still, is hidden or known only marginally by very few. We largely only show people the tips of our ice burgs, and usually that ice burg is portrayed as “something in the past that I mostly have control of now,” when if we’re honest, it’s still as active and ravaging as it was years ago.

I’ll be honest just to say that already in Legacy (not to mention what I’ve seen in past churches), there are struggles nobody would ever guess on the surface. And this shouldn’t surprise us because it’s normal in any church. Do you and I have a tougher marriage or tougher parenting than we let on? A secret struggle with fantasy and masturbation? A secret struggle with substance abuse? A secret longing for a different life, whatever that may be? A secret anger problem we haven’t really confessed? A secret bitterness toward God? We need to cultivate a culture where sins and shame can be exposed and the gospel applied.

This post is admittedly, so far, just a diagnosis of a problem. The solution, I think, will be to work toward a culture shift where Legacy Church’s community groups become a place where real-life neediness, rawness, and dirtiness are exposed instead of hidden. And culture follows the leadership. Real life gospel application cannot thrive in an environment where it is not really needed. We really need to discuss how we as leaders can help to jump this hurdle of shame and stigma. Shame exposed leads to shame exposed. It’s a picture of how Christ became shame on our behalf: the Son of God hanging as a bloody mess like a common criminal inviting society’s dregs to hang in shame with Him, be clothed by Him, and become new creations that the world will simply never understand. Counsel is needed in Legacy church, but first, we must address the stigma, and I think the cross gives us a lot of cues for this: How did Christ invite shameful sinners to behold Him and live?

How do we begin our work toward lifting the stigmas of various struggles, sins, and sufferings: abortion, homosexuality, rape, divorce, abuse, pornography, obesity, racism, parenting tough children, disabilities, AIDS, prison? How does Christ’s life, His cross, God coming as a poor man — how do these things speak to our own lives and actions at Legacy? How do they shape our approach? Will we, as a church, own the reality that weneed the heavy counsel, that we do indeed have fringe struggles in our lives, that weare still the needy ones, and not only in the past? How can we become a place that’s safe to expose our dirt without judgment yet not safe to love our dirt or to stay dirty? What does this look like in everyday community interactions? Let’s script them out and pray for God’s power to work in us.

Posted by Matt Norman with

Counsel Is Meant For The Church, Part 2

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“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” ”Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3)
“You believe in him and rejoice [...], obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1)
“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1)

What is counsel, anyway? We’ll get more to this later, but I want to blur the lines some. For sure, it is useless to say that counsel is everthing and that everything is counsel, but it is equally damaging to say that counsel is confined to a couch, a notepad, a soft voice, and a sobbing patient. I want to guide this by looking at what starts salvation, what propels salvation, and what finishes salvation. If the start, means, and goal of counsel do not agree with the start, means, and goal of God’s mission, then we counsel with the wrong message in the wrong way for the wrong purpose. Two events converge to start salvation for each of us: (1) God is displayed in the gospel and (2) we hear it with genuine faith. We have something to do with the first part, while the second is a mighty act of a sovereign God. It turns out that the same two things propel salvation along, and the same two things protect it until the end.

I want to submit the idea that counsel is the skillful display of God in deed and in word to the suffering and the addicted. It (1) lifts another’s eyes to the God who is and (2) praysdesperately to God for faith to spring up in their heart. Does this sound like something to be exported solely to a ministry? Or does it sound much more common and familiar? Rather than downplaying the weightiness of counsel, I want to add weightiness to our common and informal lives. Counsel lives in our display of God, and its goal is “hearing with faith.” Also, note that we are all suffering and addicted.

I remember the first time I heard a biblical teaching on church discipline. It confused me at first, but I ultimately felt emboldened and relieved. The vast majority of church discipline should go under the rader of the church’s elders. Did you know that? I didn’t at the time, but think about it. Proactive self-discipline. Reactive confession. Brothers and sisters meeting one-on-one covering blind spots. Confronting a brother or sister hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Loving and restoring them gently. Reminding one another daily of grace. Think of counsel in a similar way: most of it should happen outside the “office.” It starts and lives most in self-counsel (meditating on the gospel in our own minds and desires). And it thrives in small groups.

I want to leave with one final thought from Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2. In Exodus 19, God makes promises to Israel. They are promises that we know today as New Testament promises, but in Exodus 19, they were conditional on Israel’s obedience. God says: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples [...]; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel disobeys, displaying reality for all of us: that we cannot obey without a rescuer because of sin that lives in us. Instead of being a kingdom of priests, they became a kingdom with priests, largely separated from God and plagued by uncleanliness. Christ, however, obeyed where Israel (we) could never obey, and He won these promises for us! We see them repeated in 1 Peter 2: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” Christ won these promises for us in order to make us a nation of priests, that each of us “may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

As a nation of priests, each of us display God and proclaim His excellencies. Counsel is not that far removed from our call to meditate, to remind, to exhort, to restore, to preach, and to comfort. It springs from our identity as individual priests of reconciliation and display, bound together by our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. It bleeds into all of God’s mission: both to sanctification and to evangelism. Counsel belongs in the church. Take two weeks to think about what this means for your community group. How can you reshape and leverage life’s seemingly small, trivial times to display God to yourself and your community. How can you “deformalize” counsel in your group and foster bolder, more frequent, and more creative displays of God? Do you rely on Spirit-given faith to build your confidence and kill your anxieties as you display God to your community?

Posted by Matt Norman with