Just last week it was a necklace.
My 6-year-old daughter brought me the tangled mess and pled for help. With a little effort and patience, it was like new in a few minutes.
The week before it was leather strings on a baseball glove. First we had to loosen two entrenched knots; then we could tighten up the space between the fingers.
Before that, it was a shoestring. And every winter, on repeat, it’s the laces on the kids’ ice skates.
As a father of four, I find myself working regularly at untying knots. I try to count it a privilege, rather than burden. Parents often undo knots for our children, not only because we have the required strength in our hands and the tips of our fingers, but also, let’s hope, because we have the required patience.
Whether repairing a ball glove or unlacing a shoestring, complex knots require both strength and strategy, both effort and patience. The task simultaneously makes two demands on us that create a certain tension: engage your attention and energy and, at the same time, exercise patience. If you dive right in and start pulling on strings, you will worsen the knot. Or, if you only observe the tangle, and reflect on strategy, but neglect to actually engage your fingers, the knot will only persist.
This duel demand for initiative and patience, for effort and composure, captures well what Christ often requires of local-church leaders in the complexities of church life. We regularly go to work on untying figurative knots, complex relational messes — and with the stakes raised. Here neglect won’t leave the knot as is, but only make it worse.
Knotty by Nature
The risen Christ calls pastor-elders to two main tasks in the local church: teaching and governing. To make it rhyme, we feed and we lead. We exercise abilities to teach God’s word, and we exercise oversight to lead the church. So, among other qualifications, pastor-elders must be both “able to teach” and “sober-minded.”
Strangely, some aspiring or current pastors would rather not teach. This is odd, and not ideal, and may reflect confusion about the nature of the office. Among other things, pastors are teachers, and as Don Carson captures it well,
A substantial part of the ruling/oversight function is discharged through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. This is where a great deal of the best leadership is exercised: “What does Scripture say?” means “What does God say?”
From the beginning, Christianity has been a teaching movement. Its best leaders teach, and its best teachers soon become leaders. Healthy churches thrive on ongoing, healthy preaching and teaching.
However, as vital as pastoral word-ministry is, this is not the entirety of the calling. Carson lands the other foot:
Oversight of the church is more than simply teaching and preaching. . . . [A] comprehensive vision of the ministry of the Word demands oversight . . . of the entire direction and priorities of the church. . . . [I]f [a man] shows no propensity for godly oversight, then no matter how good a teacher he may be, he is not qualified to be a pastor/teacher/overseer.
We not only feed and teach but also lead and govern. And in this exercise of oversight is the underserviced task of regularly untying some complicated knots — that is, seeking to bring order to the chaos of church life.
Order in the Church
Paul in particular writes about the need for “order” in church life and assumes this to be, in some measure, the work of Christian leaders.
“From the beginning, Christianity has been a teaching movement. Its best leaders teach, and its best teachers soon become leaders.”
This is his explicit commission to Titus as his delegate: “I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town . . .” (Titus 1:5). Not only will Titus’s own teaching and oversight bring order to the disordered young church, but also the appointing of elders will bring about further order. Their very appointment will create clarity and structure in church life, and then the tangible effects of their work, over time, as they are faithful and fruitful, will bring more order.
This was true for Paul himself, as he saw it, in his apostolic teaching and governing. Speaking frankly to the Corinthians about marriage and divided interests, he writes, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). He would not be content with confusion and disarray in the household of God. Bringing order to the chaos would be a fitting summary of his work in both spoken and written word.
Perhaps Paul’s most memorable mention of “order” comes in the context of corporate worship, in the same letter to Corinth. Here he lays it down almost as a maxim: “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). If we ask why, Paul has given his reason already, in the context, grounding it in the nature of God himself: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The language of “decently” in verse 40 that Paul pairs with order (“decently and in order”) is the same as his charge to “walk properly” in Romans 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:12. Beneath the collective order and decency of church life is the order and decency produced in individual Christian lives by the Spirit through steadfast faith: “though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (Colossians 2:5).
Sin brings chaos, disorder, and confusion to human lives and relationships, and so one critical aspect in Christian ministry is our envisioning restored order and seeking to move our people, from their hearts, toward that order. Increasing order and holy propriety, on God’s terms, characterizes the maturing Christian life, and maturing church. Which makes it very much a pastoral concern.
Order on the Way to Order
Such order not only means putting desires and words and behaviors in their proper places, but also having a sense of sequence, the steps in which the vision might be pursued — the order in which to pursue the order.
Some issues in church life are simple and can be addressed in single actions. These issues might appear on the pastors’ meeting agenda once, and in a manner of minutes, a next and final action becomes clear. This was no knot; just a need. The pastors gave it their brief focus, made a decision, and life moves on.
But other issues are complex and cannot be tackled all at once. They appear on the agenda meeting after meeting for a season. These thorny situations cannot be adequately addressed in a single discussion and action but require a sequence of actions — some particular wise arrangement of steps, in proper succession, toward the goal of restored order.
This sequence is the order on the way to order. This is the kind of order Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15:22–24, where one item follows another in proper sequence:
in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end . . .
We see such ordered sequences particularly in Luke’s Gospel and its sequel. Luke explicitly set out “to write an orderly account” (Luke 1:3) and speaks of events in the life of Christ that followed after others (Luke 8:1). In Acts, Peter explains his story “in order” (Acts 11:4), specific prophets follow after others (Acts 3:24), and Paul moves “from one place to the next” in his missionary journeys (Acts 18:23).
In God’s ordered world, sequences matter — in biblical events, and in pastoral ministry — and especially when we encounter the most complex and convoluted of knots. Able oversight (“ruling well,” 1 Timothy 5:17) requires more than a single moment, meeting, action, or conversation, but humble and evolving multiple-step processes of pastoral attention, and the pastoral superpower called patience.
Call for Attention
First, gnarly pastoral knots demand our attention and engagement. Here the danger is neglect. We’d rather not deal with this complicated and emotionally draining issue: the divisive person, the troubled marriage, the flagging finances. We got into this work to preach and teach the Bible, and would rather not have to untangle all these thorny knots.
True, some potential ministry “black holes” might quickly drain far more energy and time from us than they are worth. We can consider that and set boundaries. But negligence is not the answer. Rather, as a team, we need to dedicate sufficient time to getting our minds together around enough of the details to make wise collective decisions that aren’t manifestly distorted by glaring unawareness.
Our tendency once briefed, especially as men, can be to get the problem fixed all at once. Again, some pastoral issues require only one step. But many need sequences. And when we come across these complicated knotty ones, we do well to identify one clear, worthwhile next step, even as we begin to envision some kind of sequence of actions toward resolution, whether it might take weeks or months or longer.
The need of the hour is to decide what step to take next, then gather further intel, and later identify the following step. All the while, the team keeps moving the issue forward, however deliberate the pace, and doesn’t let it stall out and go underground.
Call for Patience
It’s one thing to get up to speed and begin a sequence, one careful step at a time. But it’s another to walk the process with patience. And note well, true patience is not neglect. Patience is not slumber or naivety. Patience is wide awake and alert, with self-control.
Here the danger is hurry. We’ve assessed the problem and are ready to fix it right now. But complex knots can’t be expedited. We must untangle a thread at a time. Often these clusters are so layered that we cannot see all its sections at the outset. We need to first untangle a strand or two, or a few, to then get a line of sight deeper into the nub and discern what steps will follow.
Christian patience is not laxity. Nor is it weak, if rightly exercised, but a force for good. Spurgeon was speaking about his deacons, but might as well have been speaking of pastor-elders, when he said that such spiritually mature men “reduce chaos to order by the mere force of Christian patience” (Spurgeon the Pastor, 162). Even if we don’t smite the beast in one fell swoop, there is power in a band of godly men deliberately surrounding a nuisance, keeping their eyes on it, and moving slowly toward it together. We can be confident of resolution in due time.
After all, the pastor-elders should embody and exemplify normal, healthy Christian maturity, and be among the most patient souls in the church, and also the least resigned. They should be resolute about not being lazy or apathetic, and be assured of Christ’s commitment to build and bless his church.
We learn to roll our anxieties onto the broad shoulders of our chief Shepherd, and try to count it a privilege, rather than burden, to work at untying these knots.