Those who read the Bible regularly soon come across this verse: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). But as is often the case, people read the text and think no more about it. But there can hardly be a more important verse in Scripture. And as is also often the case, they read the first half of the verse and ignore the remainder.
Management guru Peter Drucker picks up the theme of vision in his book, Managing the Non-Profit Organization. In a section entitled “Planning For Performance” Drucker observes, “unless you integrate the vision of all constituencies into the long-range goal, you will soon lose support, lose credibility, and lose respect.” When this happens, the doors will close real fast, because people will abandon the organization. “No reason to be here,” they’ll say. I saw this in action just recently when a congregation had difficulty accepting a proposed budget. Some wanted money for a sound system; another wanted an upgraded car park so people didn’t have to park in mud when it rained. What was missing? The purpose of the budget had not been established throughout the organization.
Thus the passage in the Bible referring to Scripture is a very practical issue. But in a local organization, it needs to be remembered that where there is no united or shared vision, the organization will stumble, and stumble badly. It may limp along for quite a while, but it will die an agonizing death eventually. People will be burned, their hopes and aspirations for the organization will not be achieved, and they’ll leave disgruntled, unhappy and unfulfilled.
Thus, in any not-for-profit organization such as a local church, one of the practical steps of leadership is to provide . . . well, leadership. The leaders of the group may have a vision for the future, but if they don’t get among the constituents and help develop a shared vision, they’ll end up with the situation Drucker describes.
Sadly, it is the struggle with vision that hinders too many conservative churches. They may have their doctrine and their Five Point or Ten Point theology nutted out, but theology only provides a framework for action. For sure, a respectable goal in the organization is to have ‘correct’ theology. Now that you have your correct theology, however, what are you going to do with it?
Maybe it’s time to pick up the Great Commission and its precedent in Deuteronomy chapter 4. For the Great Commission is considered the ‘marching orders’ of the Christian church. But first, let’s look at Deut. 4:
“9 Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children—
10 how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’
11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom.
12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.
13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.
14 And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.
In the Great Commission are found similar marching orders as those given to Moses and the people of Israel. It is often emphasized that ‘going’ is the important action in the Great Commission. But the Greek in Matt. 28:19 is better translated ‘as you are going’. So as you are going, what is it you are supposed to do? There are three imperatives, that is commands: make disciples, baptize and teach.
And so we ask the question, what do these three things mean in practice? What is it Jesus meant when he said ‘make disciples.’ A disciple is someone who follows another in some way. In what way are we to follow Jesus? We are to follow him in the manner in which we keep his commandments. He said this explicitly in Deuteronomy chapter 4, and he repeated it to his disciples while he was on earth. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matt. 7:23).
So in the gospel you have Deut. 4 stated again. Keep my commandments, said the Messiah. And in Deut. 4 we see that the LORD commanded Moses to “teach the statues and rules” that the Israelites might do them. There you have discipleship explained: keep the commandments yourself and teach others to do likewise.
There also we have the third commandment of the Great Commission: Teach. But teaching has to lead to action on the part of the students, at which time it might be able to claim that there is some success in making disciples.
Now the contemporary churches by and large have taken it upon themselves to redefine the content of the teaching. In a typical Reformed church, you will be taught TULIP acronym and be expected to master the arguments for justification by faith alone, among other things. Now it is not my intention to suggest these are unimportant — but you cannot make a disciple just on TULIP. You need more substance than this if you are going to change the culture by ‘making disciples’. What is needed is the comprehensive law of God, with no omissions. Why? Because it is the Law of God that defines the follower of the Messiah. This is the point of Deut. 4 and it is the same point Jesus makes about being a follower of him. “If you love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Thus, a study of the law will, of necessity, lead to a discussion on economic theory (Thou shalt not steal) and property rights; when you get to just weights and measures (Lev. 19:35f), this will lead to a discussion on monetary theory; a study of the laws of restitution will inform a discussion on the essential rules of justice. And if you include Genesis in a study of the law (as you should), then the early chapters of Genesis will lead to a discussion on contemporary evolutionary theory. In other words, studying the law of God will take you places as you apply what is studied, that is, as you put it into practice. Or, in the words of the Great Commission, you become a ‘disciple’.
So the churches that see their vision and mission in terms of age groups or people groups alone, miss the point. The Bible already lays down the mission statement of the church and the major strategy. To be sure, there are some tactical steps to take, because disciplining singles is not the sames as disciplining married couples. Teaching teenagers is not the same as teaching people over age 50. And so it is possible to take the the commands of the Great Commission and break them down into different constituencies in the local church and the local community in terms of outreach.
The rejection of Deut. 4 as a precedent for the Great Commission, however, has gutted the Great Commission of its real strength to combat sin. Sin, in case you are wondering, is a rejection of God’s law by replacing it with substitute law. This is called ‘lawlessness’ in Scripture (1 John 3:4). It is anti-God’s law.
So a church without a shared vision of the future is not paying attention to Scripture. Where there is no vision, the people perish. Where there is little or no Law of God, the people perish. When TULIP replaces law in importance, the people perish.
But we had to read no further than our opening text to find out what the ‘vision’ is in Prov. 29:18. The complete verse reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keeps the law, happy is he” (American KJV). Here, lack of vision and keeping the law are set over against one another. When there is no vision, the people perish. On the other hand, happy are those who keep the law.
Thus, it is not only important to have a vision for the future, it is also critical to have the right vision, the correct vision. And that will be found in the first five books of the Bible — the Torah, or law of God. If your church is looking for a mission statement, a vision statement, get them to start with the Law. It is the very best place to start.
A Skewed Perspective?
Now if you are inclined to the view that this presentation in favor of the Law of God is somewhat skewed, it might be time to read again the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 4, NIV):
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”d : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
There again is the mission statement of the church, stated in terms of ethics — right living, or holiness. And Paul is very specific about what is wrong and what needs to change:
- futile thinking
- darkened in their understanding
- separated from the life of God
- lost all sensitivity
- given over to sensuality
- every kind of impurity
- deceitful desires
- falsehood — failing to speak the truth
- unwholesome talk
- grieving the Holy Spirit
- rage and anger
- every form of malice
Now that sounds like a running commentary on contemporary Western culture. And Paul calls for an end to these things, replacing them by putting “on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” That cannot be done until the Law of God becomes the central focal point of the church — its mission.
So the Scriptures have a consistent theme. Ethics, ethics, ethics. Law, law, law. Morality, morality, morality. Right living as opposed to wrong living. Right living as defined by the Law of God rather than opinion or human tradition. These are the alternatives to God’s law identified in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q.91: What are good works? Answer: Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition. The framers of the catechism did not make this up, for in Col. 2:8 we are warned “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” There’s that human tradition part.
However, the Heidelberg Catechism also helps us identify the problem I am trying to highlight. The Commandments of God are divided up over eleven Lord’s Days out of 52 in the whole year. Thus, a congregation only gets about 20% of the preaching time in the devoted to the Law of God if the 52-week pattern of the Catechism is held to. The remainder is ‘doctrine.’ And therein lies one reason for the appalling ignorance of God’s law in the churches. Not enough time is spent on the law and its applications.
So there has become a skewed understanding of the role of the elders and teachers in the church who, according to Paul, are to “equip the saints” (Eph. 4:12). Equip them for what? Work of ministry, building up the body of Christ, says Paul. How is that done? Read the rest of the chapter. Some people mistakenly believe equipping the saints is to get them to run a house group, making tea or coffee after the church service or teach Sunday School. Those activities have a place, but they are not what Paul had in mind. Not sure? Read Eph. 4. again . . . and again.
Another part of the problem is the current emphasis on the Gospel as an ‘avoid hell free’ card. This is fire insurance, whereas the emphasis in both Old and New Testaments is about changed lives. The Gospel is thus about changed lives, and while the question of hell and its avoidance are an aspect of the Gospel, they are not its emphasis. The emphasis is on changed living.
And that can only come about as people put into practice the Law of God replacing their own opinions and human tradition with that which comes from above.
And that, says Scripture, is vision.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.