PSA: This is an oddly “nerdy” post. A paper I’ve recently written for class. Reading back over it, I thought “wow, I like that.” So I decided to share it with you. This does not endeavor to explore all theological issues, or explain/cover all the breadth of topics involved in God’s activity. It’s just another blip of a pixel on the moving picture of a church talking about God together. 🙂
Dr. Ken Schenck has said that, within the Bible, you can find a kind of trajectory, a “flow of revelation.” There is throughout scripture a common direction, and unified revelation of the heart and mission of God’s loving activity. Because of this, it can be beneficial to examine a given specific pastoral issue not only in the light of a certain scripture; but illumined by the whole of scripture. By doing this, we can observe the connections between scriptures. We may also come to a fuller and enriched approach to our topic, given the broad scope of the library within the Bible.
The pastoral issue being examined here is: “What does effective Christian leadership from a distance entail?” Obviously the term “Christian” would not have existed in a pre-Jesus world, but we can apply the term broadly to describe the approach to leadership taken by God’s people. In modern contexts, we may have anything from local representation by video preaching, to a desired “virtual presence” by pastors on social media. Before we set expectations of ourselves, or those leading God’s people, it is important to examine how God’s people have led from a distance in scripture.
In this paper, we will examine briefly both Old and New Testament contributions to our understanding, as well as what both offer us moving forward. The history, present, and future of a God who personally embodies leadership both “among” and yet “from a distance” offers us both a hope and a shape for our lives as we join His redemptive activity for Kingdom coming.
Shaped by Law
After the fall in Genesis, Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). This creates a problem of “distanced” relationships that must for the first time be overcome. Relationships with each other, creation itself, and most importantly God, experienced a distancing caused by sin. Because of this, sacrificial systems are put into place, humanity must work the ground, and relationships are obviously strained and require more purposeful work than before.
This pattern continues with Abram, where within the span of just a few verses God calls Abram away from the land of his father and family (Genesis 12:1), and later promises that through Abram all the families of earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) We can assume that “all” here encompasses his own family, and so we have a story of God’s people being drawn away for the purposes of being used to reach those they’re distanced from.
As the story of God’s people continued, distance continues to be a problematic result of a broken world. As a result, God’s people are enslaved by fellow humanity, but finally “set free” as God moves on their behalf, and begins to reveal himself as wanting to “re-place” the people closer to Him as he tabernacles among them. (Exodus 25:8) Doing so, God also offers words that are to shape His people as unique among all people. He gives His people the Law, by which they will be shaped uniquely as His chosen. Christian leadership from a distance begins here to take a unique shape of passing on, or declaring uniquely, the words given by a God who shapes His people by the Law. The same power found in God declaring “Let there be Light” (Genesis 1:3) is now seen in commands such as “Honor your Father and Mother”. (Exodus 20:12) God is conquering distance by shining uniquely through the light of His people into the darkness of a broken humanity.
The power of “word”, then, continues through the story of God’s people. When they listen and allow themselves to be shaped by His Words, they experience the blessings of a distance rendered powerless. When they forget or neglect these words, they find themselves struggling. Into such moments, God often sends someone to speak on His behalf. We see this happening in Jeremiah, as God speaks to His people living in exile. Even though they’re distanced once more from the “promised land”, God reminds them they needn’t be distanced from the careful ways He has shaped them as His own. Through the prophet Jeremiah, they are reminded of their identity and told that through the ways they honor God, the physical distance is rendered powerless. Even the distance of time itself is robbed of it’s power, as God promises that in 70 years He will restore His people.
Revelation of God
It’s important for us to remember in all of this, that even as God works to reconcile great distances, it is not only for those He is communicating with in that moment. As we saw in His words to Abram, through God’s people ALL families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) Throughout the Old Testament we see God revealing Himself in unique ways through things like dreams (Numbers 12:6), visions (Isaiah 1:1), and the words of the prophets (2 Samuel 23:2). God wasn’t attempting to remain a mystery only to be unlocked by those who could decipher His ways. Gods’ desire was to be known, His Love experienced, and His people to join with Him, even and especially to those who still seemed most “distanced”. (Isaiah 58:6-8)
In practical terms, often physical distances were handled with words as well, in the forms of written word. In 2 Chronicles 30:1 we read, “Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel.” (NIV) This is a great example and reminder that most often when someone is offering Christian Leadership from a distance, it comes in a form of invitation to counter that distance either by actual travel, or symbolically by responding to a specific call to respond toward God’s desire – as in Esther 9:30-31, “And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom—words of goodwill and assurance— to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation.” As the festivals of God’s people were celebrated, His people were united across physical location and generations, thwarting any power of time and space to distance God’s people from each other, relating well to creation, or the joy of His loving desire for their lives.
NEW TESTAMENT DEVELOPMENTS
Shaped by the Law Fulfilled
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, NIV) Jesus helps open the New Testament by providing continuity to a God who offered the law as a response to the brokenness of humanity and a people being called out for the sake of all others. Now these people would have a “living word” (John 1:14, NIV) through whom God was communicating a living version of that which the law, comparatively, had only begun to reveal.
The power and presence of the word continued to grow at this point, as Jesus invited humanity to “Follow me”, and transformed this group of people by removing the power of distance – both physical/literal, and figurative/spiritual. This continues even after his death and resurrection, as the Holy Spirit empowers and continues through all people what had begun in Christ. As Paul writes a letter to the early church in Ephesus, he shares a prayer that they would receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians 1:17) for the purposes of knowing God better. Such knowing is in direction of defeating any power of distance, and bringing invitation to receive the hope of that which Paul saw as the direction of God’s activities found earlier in that same chapter. “when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10, NIV)
With this new understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law, the growing collection of writings seem to shift. Now centered on Jesus, the focus moves beyond understanding how to follow commands and measure requirements for cleanliness, toward communicating and proclaiming the Lordship, Love and New Creation Life found in this community shaped by following Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the temple curtain is torn, we understand the distance between humanity and God has been transformed forever in important ways. No longer exiles, all were now invited and given place at the banqueting table of the Kingdom of Jesus (Matthew 22).
Revelation of God in Jesus
As the Kingdom trajectory of those formed by the living Word of God continued, it grew increasingly important for the word to be shared exponentially throughout a humanity that was now completely engulfed in invitation to New Creation. Especially in the beginning, the number of people who had heard or experienced Jesus first-hand was incredibly small. Still, the desire for God to be known and revealed is powerful, with all the resources of humanity and creation at God’s whim. Transforming lives such as Saul/Paul, God discovered and created unique ways to spread the knowledge and faith of Jesus Christ throughout the ancient world. This happened both through letter writing, experiences of lives transformed/made new, and simply population growth in areas where humanity flourished.
The letters of Paul make up about ¼ of the New Testament itself, and in them we have revelations of God and his heart for a creation made new. His focus on the good news of Jesus Christ was central to the development of the early church. As John MacArthur writes, “Virtually every one of Paul’s New Testament epistles defends and clarifies some crucial point of doctrine germane to the gospel message.” (MacArthur, 2017)
This pattern of Christian leadership from a distance continues throughout the New Testament, even through to the final book “Revelation” written by John from the island of Patmos. In a series of letters meant to traverse great distances of time/space/brokenness, he is instructed to write letters to seven churches. Each of those letters communicate important truths to the global church today, seeking to faithfully follow, proclaim, and embody the Love of a God who is omnipresent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are connected and able to connect others to this New Creation. As scripture reminds us, “If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) This “life of the age to come” is something mysteriously connected to and transforming the words we speak and write, in many of the same ways as those original words “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)
“According to the book of Revelation, Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world.” (Wright, 2017) This is not a “new idea”, but rather something God has been actively pursuing and bringing about for thousands of years already (Ephesians 1:5). Even from the beginnings of distance caused by sin, God was working to bring redemption and healing to the brokenness.
Of all the debatable elements found in specific types, styles, and methods of Christian leadership from a distance then, we have discovered at least this one thing: Christian leadership from a distance always seeks to bridge distance and separation, uniting that which has been impacted by sin, and bringing all things to respond to His invitation and declaration that Jesus is now Lord of all. By our words and actions we declare that distance retains no power in the realities defined by Jesus.
“Christian leaders guide from a distance by reminding recipients in letters that God overcomes distance by being near to us no matter where we are, and by uniting believers who are distant with the same hope, same word, same Holy Spirit, same stories of deliverance, and same celebrations of festivals.” (D. Freemyer, personal communication, December 3, 2017) We are drawn together, united across time and space, and beyond any power of sin to hold us back. By the Holy Spirit of Jesus we have access to the throne of God, the Life of the Age to come, and are set free from the constraints and futures determined by the brokenness of sin. In Jesus, we are invited and empowered to exist and communicate as living declarations of a fully revealed future – “undistanced” from each other, from New Creation, and from God.
MacArthur, John. (2017). The Gospel According to Paul. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Press, A. (2003). New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wright, N.T. (2017). The Day the Revolution Began. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.