Valuable Verbs For Visiting #5: "Guard"
The year was 1960. I belonged to the YMCA, and had signed up to tour Joliet Stateville Penitentiary with a Father/Son group from our local "Y". Dad and I were excited to see this "dark side" of life, before only imagined. The bus ride was too long, of course, but finally we rode up the long drive to the front gate. Immediately, excitement was replaced by a foreboding chill. "What must it be like to be locked, to live, behind these gates?"
The tour commenced. We walked through administration buildings, saw the Warden's office, the officer's quarters, and then entered Blockhouse A. An enormous concrete and steel structure, it was cold and it echoed. I didn't like it, and I don't think any of us on the tour, men or boys, enjoyed walking past the rows of cells that later would suggest pet store dog cages. The faces behind the bars were all different: some angry, some sad, some empty. Most — in the eyes of 10 year olds — were ominous.
Only one part of the tour gave me any comfort. Despite the bars separating criminals from tourists, despite all the security measures we passed through, only the visible, seemingly omnipresent guards provided any sense of protection. I found myself looking for the guards, secure in the knowledge that if they were around, we were OK. They made us feel safe. Bars might fail, hands might reach through, but a guard right there ... well, it made you breathe easier. I'm sure the inmates viewed them differently, but we all felt better because they were there.
The church of Jesus Christ does not face an enemy who is locked behind bars as in a penitentiary. In fact, Scripture makes clear that our foe possesses a spiritual power and attacks the believing community both from the outside, using the principalities and powers of the world as his tools, and from the inside, employing false doctrine and unholy lifestyles to erode the faith (Ephesians 6).
Yet, God has set guards in place for His church, guards whose task is so difficult because the enemy is so dangerous. Those guards are, simply, the elders of the church. They are the God-appointed protectors, the "watchers," the security men whose task is to serve God by defending and protecting what is most precious to Him.
What must you guard? How must you guard it? With what tools? Those are some of the questions we consider in this article.
In the first place, you must watch out for yourself! Sound strange? Perhaps, but only if you forget that the difference between a guard and an inmate is that the inmate was caught! All have broken God's law; all deserve His judgment — elders too!
Listen to these specific Scriptural warnings about yourself:
He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.Proverbs 13:3
Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.Proverbs 4:13
Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.Luke 12:1
Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.Luke 12:15
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.Proverbs 4:23
I don't suspect that I need to say much about any of those warnings from Scripture. Each of them identifies a very real danger to our weak flesh. There is not a Christian alive, elders included, who is not faced daily with the temptation to sin by means of a mouth run wild, with a heart full of greed or perverse desires, in two-faced hypocrisy, or with a know-it-all stubbornness that refuses instruction. No elder can defend God's people from such foes without having battle experience! God tells you: these are problem areas! Watch it! Guard yourself! Be aware of your weakness, and find strength and protection in the spiritual armor that God provides (Ephesians 6:10ff): a searching of Scripture, prayer, and active and devoted faith.
Guard the Flock
Next, the shepherds of the flock of Christ are assigned the duty to guard the sheep, and especially the lambs. Jesus used a graphic picture to describe His own loving work as the Good Shepherd when He says, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). Speaking to a culture familiar with sheepherding, Jesus drew a word picture of the circular corral, often constructed of thorny bushes, within which the flock would find nighttime protection from both thieves and wolves. There was only one gap in the circle — a "gate" — and the shepherd would make his bed in the gap. He would literally "lay down" his life.
Such is the image that must compel those whom Jesus Christ now calls to be shepherds of His flock in His name. Whatever it takes, even at the cost of one's very life, we must defend His flock.
Listen to the teaching of Acts 20:28ff:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood...
Savage wolves will come in among you and will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
Notice the enemies identified. Wolves from without and false teachers (heretics!) "from your own number." You as elders must be on guard against both doctrine perverters and worldliness. To say it a bit differently, be alert to Satan's ploys to seduce God's people with money, temporary pleasure through sex or drugs, fame or prestige; but also be painfully aware that the person sitting next to you in church (even in consistory!) may be Satan's undercover agent to chip away at the foundation by substituting pleasant-sounding falsehood for the truth of Scripture.
Especially be careful to assure that the lambs are fed, that they are raised on a solid diet of Scriptural knowledge and creedal indoctrination. I am afraid most "lambs" today are doctrinally anemic, malnourished.
Practically speaking, this warning really only asks you to be Scripturally realistic. Recognize that the heart is desperately wicked; don't naively trust the world to be gentle and kind in its seduction; assume that people and institutions are profoundly corrupted by sin; know that Satan is real, and that his stratagems are cleverly devised.
Guard the Gospel
But the warnings to guard yourselves and to guard the flock can never be separated from the charge to guard the Gospel. Listen to how Paul challenges pastor Timothy:
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching ... Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.2 Timothy 1:13 -14
Notice how Paul views the apostolic teaching as the pattern, the type, the paradigm for the work of "sound teaching." That apostolic teaching is the foundation for the New Testament, the written Scriptures. That Scriptural Word is the sacred "trust," the "deposit" that the Church is to guard.
This doesn't mean, as some think, that the church's first order of business is to jump with both feet into every frivolous dispute over words (see 2 Timothy 2:14). To do so would turn us all into volunteer firefighters, running around with apologetic buckets, watering down every bit of smoke we think we see. We would never preach, teach, evangelize, or disciple!
But it does suggest that the church, and specifically the eldership of the church, ought not to allow challenges to Biblical Christianity to erode the integrity of the Biblical message. For example, guarding the Gospel means not only affirming Scriptural teaching about the sanctity and permanence of marriage, but also actively confronting those who violate it through fornication, adultery, or sexual perversity. Again, guarding the Gospel means not only loudly affirming that we have a "high view of Scripture" (I never met anyone who claims to be a Biblical Christian who would admit to having a "low view of Scripture," did you?), but rather, actively defending against any teaching that calls into question straightforward belief and obedience to the clear teaching of specific texts. (In our day and age, feminism has brought about such a challenge to many Pauline passages, and the secular scientific community has brought a challenge against the historicity of early Genesis).
Whether or not we all have a "stomach for" such debates, such struggles, within our various congregations or denominations, one thing is clear: our task is to "guard the deposit," not to apologize for it, nor to seek ways to make it less offensive to an unbelieving and hostile world.
To stand guard effectively requires that you who are elders must be knowledgeable about the issues — yes, the theological issues! — of the day. And I know of no other way of gaining such knowledge than by reading! Read magazines (like this one!), read books (some new suggestions follow this article), but most importantly, read your Bibles! Read large portions (like a whole book) at one sitting, then go back over that portion more carefully during the following week or so. Take notes; think through the arguments the Spirit uses; analyze and reflect. Then, and then only, will you be prepared to "guard" the deposit, for then only will you prove that you believe it to be a precious and sacred deposit from God!
Guard yourselves, guard the flock, guard the Gospel. An enormous challenge, I admit, but not a very complicated one. You see, all of what I've said really boils down to one basic truth: God establishes faith and preserves it through the words of Scripture (read carefully the 1st Q. & A. of Lord's Day 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism!), and if Satan attacks the church anywhere, it is at that point. Personal obedience to Scripture will be challenged, a Scripturally- structured and directed church body will be mocked, while Scriptural teaching will be opposed at every turn as inconsistent with modern living. God knows that Satan hasn't changed his tactics since Eden.
"Has God really said…?" (Genesis 3:1).