Founders’ Day was always a big occasion at the Western Region Christian High School. Mathias was happy that he would be able to attend this year. He enjoyed seeing the old school, but most of all he enjoyed seeing his old friends. It had been twenty-five years since Mathias graduated. Many of his friends would be there. Mathias would listen to all the speeches. Then he would look for his closest friends, Dennis and Paul. They would eat supper together like in their student days. In one way it would not be like in their student days. Instead of cooking for themselves in the hostel they would go to a nice restaurant.
The weather was very hot. It had not rained but the air was humid. It was uncomfortable in the chapel where the Founders’ Day program was held. Mathias and Paul tried to be patient as they listened to the many long speeches, but it was difficult. They were impatient to look for Dennis, and the heat made it difficult as well. Attendance was good, but some people left the chapel before the program was over.
It was easier to find Dennis than they expected. He was waiting right outside. Dennis had not changed much through the years. He was short, which would have made him hard to find in a crowd, but he always wore bright colours. Sometimes he wore several bright colours all at once. Some people said he should have been called Joseph, because of the coat of many colours.
Paul had a car, so the three friends rode together in Paul’s car to the restaurant. On the way they talked of their jobs and their families. All three had been blessed with good wives. Paul was the only one who had a really good job, but they all had jobs. They were thankful. Paul was chief clerk in a bank. Dennis was a teacher. Mathias worked in a factory. He was called foreman, but the pay was not much better than that of the other workers.
A Surprise at the Restaurant
During the meal the conversation turned to the church.
Paul was attending a church in the city. Several of the members had good jobs. It was known as a healthy church, but somehow Paul did not seem pleased with the church. “Brother Kumalo works hard,” he said, “but somehow we are not growing anymore. We grew from just a few members to over 100 in the first two years. We thought that the growth would continue, but it has stopped. We have been at about the same size for four years now. Brother Kumalo wins a few converts. But others leave and the church remains the same size. Last year I suggested that the church needs elders to feed the flock while Brother Kumalo concentrates on winning new members. Brother Kumalo agreed, but I could tell that he did not really like the idea. He preached some sermons from First Timothy and Titus on the qualifications of elders. The qualifications seemed so high that we were all discouraged from agreeing to be an elder. It seems as if Brother Kumalo wants to be the only leader in the church. He wants to be at every function, even at the ladies’ meetings. He runs the church meetings almost like a dictator. I wish that we had elders in the church and that they could make him behave more like part of the church, instead of like a lord over the church.”
“Don’t think that elders will solve your problems,” Dennis said. “We have elders in our church and we are not growing either. In fact, we are getting smaller. We thought that appointing elders would be good. We found out that having a group of old men sit in front during worship does not make a church grow. We are thinking of taking a vote on what needs to be done in the church. This tradition of letting the elders lead is not working. We need free and fair elections in the church.”
Both Paul and Dennis looked at Mathias. He had been the most active in the church when they were students. They were waiting to see what he would say. “I can tell you that elections may not help either,” Mathias began.
“We have been trying to run our congregation that way for a long time. It does not work. The trouble with democracy in the church is that new members want to vote just like everyone else. They do not know how things have been done, or why they are done. The new members quickly anger the old ones. Sometimes the old ones and the new ones both leave. But I certainly do not want the church run like the government. Look around you. Are the countries with democracy any better off than those without it? The politicians promise all kinds of things before the elections. The ignorant people vote for them. Does anything change? I have seen the same kind of thing in the church. Those who know nothing of the church end up in charge, if they happen to outnumber those who have Bible knowledge. Democracy does not work in the church. No, the church should be run by those who are mature in the Lord.”
“But that will be just what we are facing,” Paul objected. “Brother Kumalo runs everything because he has the most Bible knowledge. Our church is not growing.”
“That is better than dying like our church,” Dennis said.
“That is better than being split into groups that fight each other, like in our church,” Mathias added.
“But does it honour Christ?” asked Paul. “People are starting to call us, ‘Brother Kumalo’s church.’ He runs everything.”
The discussion went on with each of the three friends expressing the same ideas again and again. They talked for over an hour. Suddenly all three friends were surprised by a voice from the next table. “You men seem to have a problem,” an old man said. “Would you mind hearing what an old man has to say?”
Mathias had not realised that they were being overheard by others in the restaurant. He was a little annoyed with the old man for listening to their conversation. Dennis rolled his eyes to indicate that he did not expect any helpful advice from this man, but he did not say anything. Paul looked thoughtfully at the old man and said, “What do you think of our situations?”
The old man shifted his chair so that he was facing the three friends. He appeared to be blind. He was very old. Dennis moved his chair to make more room. Paul continued to look very thoughtfully at the old man. Mathias began to wonder if he might be someone they had met once before. He did look slightly familiar.
“Well, maybe I should introduce myself,” the old man said. “None of you seem to know me, although you once knew me. I am Brother Matla, your grade ten Bible teacher. Yes, it has been twenty-seven years since you were in my class, but I remember you. It seems to me that you used to argue like this back then.”
They were all a little ashamed that they had not recognised their old teacher. The truth was that they all thought that he must be dead by now and had not even thought about him. He had been a good teacher, but was old even when they were his students. There were greetings all around. Mathias, Paul and Dennis each tried to apologise for not knowing him, but Brother Matla waved for them to be quiet.
“At my age,” he laughed, “I need to say what I have to say quickly. You may not have many more days on this earth, but I may be in my last minute. You did not listen to me very well when you were students, but maybe you are more willing to listen now.
“Your problem is twofold.
“First, you have forgotten to consider all the possible options. Each of you has an idea of what will work for the church. Each of you is eager to convince the others of his idea. You need to spend some time asking if the three ideas you have are all the possible options. One of you thinks that appointing elders is the great need, another wants democracy, and the third wants the church run by the ones with the most Bible knowledge. Take the time to ask, ‘Are these all the possible solutions?’ Before you proceed to discuss them.
“The second thing that is wrong here is your failure to let the whole Bible speak to the situation. One of you mentioned that your preacher taught lessons from First Timothy and Titus on the elders. Those lessons did not help your congregation much. Yet you are making the same mistake that the preacher made. You are failing to consider the whole council of God. Timothy and Titus contain the most direct teaching on the subject, but the Bible has many other passages that apply. You ought to consider all of these. Peter, Acts, Numbers and Samuel all teach lessons about leadership.
“Some of you were unhappy, if I remember right, to be studying the Old Testament in grade ten. You thought that Christians should only study the New Testament. That is part of the problem in your congregations. People need to know more about leading than just the qualifications for becoming an elder. They need to learn the lessons of leadership that could be found in the lives of Saul and David. Sometimes these are good lessons. At other times we are supposed to learn from their mistakes. But I suspect that you have not been learning either kind of lesson in your churches.
“Numbers is also a great book on leadership. How many lessons have been given from Numbers in the churches you attend? Have you ever thought about suggesting that the church study the leadership lessons in Numbers?
“A study of Numbers might help this Brother Kumalo realise that a good leader shares the leadership with others. Moses shared the leadership (Numbers 11). Surely Brother Kumalo would not claim to be a greater leader than Moses.
“A study of Numbers might also help those who want democracy to see the error of their way. Good leaders listen to everyone, but we cannot let everyone lead. Some who insisted that they should lead when they had not been called to such a task were killed (Numbers 16).
“Elders who think that they are just to sit around, need to learn to plan. This is a new idea to them. Where will they learn it? A study of Numbers could show people the need to plan the work of the church.
“There are other parts of the Bible that also need to be considered. There are good leadership lessons in Acts. There are lots of lessons about how not to lead in Judges. But I would suggest that you start with Numbers. Get your congregations to study that book. It might surprise you what a response you will have.”
The Journey Home
Mathias gave a lot of thought to Brother Matla’s suggestions as he travelled home. It had been a long time since the church had really studied anything in the Old Testament. It might not help. Some people might be greedy for power. They might not be willing to learn, but it was worth trying. Mathias decided that he would offer to teach the adult Bible class. He knew that they would be surprised when he announced that they would study the Book of Numbers.
To be continued…
1 For more excellent insights on organisation and leadership in Numbers, see Thayer’s very helpful book God’s Mission Begins: Vol 2: Leviticus – Deuteronomy. Available as a Kindle Book at www.amazon.ca
Matsapha, Eswatini, Southern Africa