Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why pastor search committees are wrong

Well, after my last post I had some wonderful friends, and my beloved father, discussing various points with me.  One of my friends asked the all important question: Why is it wrong for churches to add qualifications to pastor?  I really wanted to tackle this question already, and in part I wanted to address it in the way churches look for pastors (at least many churches), which is through a pastor search committee.  The reason I want to tackle it in this fashion is because the way a church looks for a pastor will end up being determined by their view of who their pastor should be.  Ergo the issue of whether a church should have the right to add qualifications will necessarily work itself out in the manner in which a church chooses to look for a pastor.

So, I've already tipped my hand to the fact that I think the way most churches do this is just wrong.  The question really becomes one of "Why?"  Allow me to back up one minute here and note first of all that I intended my title to be a little too all-encompassing.  I recognize there are some churches that do form biblical pastor search committees.  However, I recognize also that these churches are few and far between and that the vast majority (and I do mean the vast majority) do not form biblical search committees.

So, why do I say pastor search committees are wrong?  Well, first of all because in many churches there should be no need for a pastor search committee.  Beyond that point the individuals chosen for the pastor search committee are often ignorant of what they should be looking for, and thus should not be there in the first place.  Finally, because of the second point, the qualifications chosen by most pastor search committees (this ties into the last post) are not biblical and thus the pastor search committee ends up making decisions based more on feeling than biblical reasoning.  Most pastor search committees are wrong because they are simply not biblical or biblically literate.

I know I sound like I'm throwing some harsh barbs here, but let me be clear: my only goal is that the church would be conformed to the pattern laid out in Scripture, in order that we might grow into the fullness of him who fills everything.  I'm laying out my charges clearly and bluntly so that there can be no mistake with what I am saying.  I recognize that I am destroying my own future of finding a church, as any who would read this blog would immediately reject me as I have rejected their model of finding a pastor.  In other words I'm arguing I should be taken seriously because I am figuratively throwing away any hope I have of being a pastor by posting so public a complaint against modern church polity.  (In case you think I'm exaggerating, trust me, by my own experience I can well guarantee you I'm not.)

Okay, so let's take these issues in the following order:  What qualifications should a man meet to be a pastor?  Who should be on a committee considering a man for the position of a pastor?  How should a church find a pastor?  If we address these three questions, starting with the first, then we will be able to lay out a biblical model for a pastor search committee.

So, to the first question: What qualifications should a man meet to be a pastor?  Here we have a very easy answer: the bible gives us the list of qualifications.  Let us look to the two passages that explicitly answer this question: Titus 1:6-9; and 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Looking at these two sections, taken as a composite, what we read is:

"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task[, so] if anyone is above reproach, sober-minded the husband of one wife, he manages his own household well, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination (for an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?); he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered, quarrelsome, or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, respectable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, gentle and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction (able to teach) in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil." (Titus 1:6-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 modified from the ESV)

Note that Paul states in Titus "if anyone..." and goes on to explain the qualifications of an elder.  Note also that in 1 Timothy Paul says that a man who desires to be an overseer must meet these qualifications, and then goes on to list the qualifications he must meet.  But, in neither case does Paul say that the church has a right to modify this list or add to it.  Okay, but some will respond that the bible does not prohibit them from modifying the list.  But does it?

If we look to the opening verses of 1 Timothy we see that Paul tells Timothy to charge those in the church not to deviate from Paul's doctrine in the gospel.  Well, part of the doctrine of the gospel is that Christ is the one who sets up the church and provides for her the various leaders and members she needs.  So we read in 1 Corinthians 12:28, "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, various kinds of tongues."  What we see is that it is God who appoints a man to be a preacher, a teacher, or any other role within the church.  Therefore, when the church considers, "Who should we call to be our [fill in the blank]?" the answer will be, "Who meets the qualifications God has laid out for that role?

For a church to assume the authority of adding qualifications to this role would be to assume that their understanding of who would be right for their congregation is more authoritative than Scripture.  So, for instance, a man might say, "You are looking for a pastor, I meet all the qualifications to be a pastor, and I am willing to come and serve at your church."  For a church to say to such a man, "We are not interested in having you, we want someone with different qualifications" would be tantamount to that church saying that they do not care that Scripture says he is qualified, they themselves want to determine who is truly qualified.  In many ways this would be like the ancient Israelites ignoring those who fulfilled the true office of prophet in order to listen to the other false prophets of the day.

But, what if a church needs a pastor, and there are a bunch of guys who all meet the qualifications of being a pastor, as laid out in Scripture, and all of them want to be the pastor of that church?  We'll get to that when we talk about a church actually calling a pastor.  For now let's address one issue at a time.  The simple fact is that Scripture lays out the qualifications, and Paul says that no one in the church is to deviate from the doctrines of the gospel, and one of those doctrines is that God is the only one with the authority to raise up and appoint the leadership of the church because it is the body of Christ.  Therefore, no church has the right to modify the doctrine of who is qualified to be an elder, either in relaxing the qualifications, or in making those qualifications more strict.

Okay, so with that out of the way (I hope it is out of the way, if not I'll write more on it once you, my gracious reader, let me know that I failed to carry my argument) let us get on to the matter of who should be on a committee considering a man for a pastor?  The answer to this question is actually the fuzziest of all the questions we'll be looking at in this post.  The answer is quite simply whoever is biblically informed, mature, doctrinally sound, and capable of exercising the discretion needed to make sure a man meets the qualifications as listed.  On this matter a church should exercise wisdom and discretion.  However, this is accepting the church as it is currently, not addressing the situation as it would be ideal.

The ideal answer to this question is: whoever the other elders are.  In other words the pattern laid out in Scripture is that there should be multiple elders in most churches.  Thus these men should be the ones determining who meets the qualifications of an elder, and they should be the ones to bring these men before the congregation.  From the perspective of doing a thorough review of the person the best option would be to then allow the congregation to verify the fitness of the man through asking whatever questions may be necessary (they may know of a weakness that the elders do not, or they may wonder themselves if the elders addressed all the potential weaknesses).  Thus the elders, recognizing that God has called a man to serve as an overseer, interview that man, examine his life, and once satisfied make that recommendation to the church.  The church then has the opportunity to interview that man and should, unless there is a flaw found in him, accept him as an elder based upon his meeting the qualifications as laid out in Scripture.  In this way the church, through the officers God has provided her, acknowledges the call of God.  (No, I'm not going to cite specific Scripture here because there is no specific Scripture that lays this method out, rather this is a biblical theology based upon reading Acts, 1 Timothy, Titus, and following the thread of God's calling through the Old Testament.  If you have a better method that actually fits with Scripture you are welcome to argue for it.)

Okay, but that last section certainly opens the question of when a church should call a new elder.  After all, if you already have three elders, how many more do you need?  And if we are addressing the question of when we also need to address the question of how the church finds this new elder.  It is great if we know the mechanics of how the church should verify a man as an elder, but how do they even find the man?  And what if, as I noted before, there are a lot of men all applying for the same position of elder?

To the first question we can apply the answer that many churches want to apply too frequently: It is up to the church.  Clearly you need to call an elder when you have no elders, but in a larger church the obvious answer seems to be, "Whenever the need arises."  For instance, no deacons were called in the church until that role was needed, and when the role was needed the church chose as many as was necessary to fulfill the role.  If you have a church of 50 members you probably don't need more than a couple of elders (perhaps one, but two is safer, we'll discuss why shortly), but if you have a church of 2500 you probably will need several elders to make sure the spiritual needs of the flock are being met.  Since it is the role of the elder to care for the flock spiritually you need as many elders as it takes to do so.

So, how does the church find this elder, and what if there are multiple men who all want to be elder at the same time?  Okay, let's address the first question in two ways, the first being the ideal, and the second being the real world.  In the ideal situation the way the church finds the new elder is through the body.  That is, if there is a need for an elder in the church, then it is reasonable to suppose that the same God who organized the body will provide for the needs of that body by raising up a member of the body to fulfill the role of elder.  A sign of a healthy church is that it is producing spiritually mature men who fulfill the requirements of being elders and is thus self-replicating.  In reality most churches couldn't function like this because most churches are not that healthy and haven't trained their members to be elders.

So, in reality the way a church finds an elder is through putting out word that they are looking for such a man.  Here the fact is there is no one right way to do things because the church has already failed in what should have been one of its primary tasks.  (I recognize that in persecuted churches things are different, but you probably aren't reading this post if you are in a church where your pastor was recently arrested in the middle of the night and the government has threatened to execute the remaining members. I'm not joking, we really need to be in prayer for our persecuted brothers and sisters.)  So, the best way to find a qualified man is to look where there are a multitude of qualified men: seminaries, larger churches, bible colleges, etc.  God has given Western churches a great blessing by establishing institutions where you can find a large number of men who meet the qualifications for being an elder in one place.

The problem is that "large number" part.  If a church is looking for an elder they are likely to draw a large number of men who all meet the qualifications of being an elder.  But how then does the church determine who the "best" man would be?  Well, again, there is no one simple answer to this, there are, however, multiple wrong answers.  One potential answer would be to follow the footsteps of the apostles and gamble.  If you read Acts 1 you'll note that the apostles replaced Judas by casting lots, accepting that there were multiple men who met the qualifications to be an apostle, and yet they only had one position to fill in order to complete the 12.  Thus it seems that it is perfectly biblical for a church to draw a name out of a hat or do some other random means of determining which of the multiple candidates God would call to serve them.  (I can see some people getting really upset at this already, but I'm standing on Scripture on this one unless you can show me I'm reading it wrong.)

The second option would be to limit the time frame and then simply do a "first come" sort of call, basically simply saying that the first man who meets the qualifications gets the call.  Or you could say the one who is closest because he would already know the community.  Basically there are a number of ways a church can make their decision, but they should have all of this ironed out before they even begin considering elders or else they and all those they consider will be in for one long headache.  (This is a major reason a church should seek to have multiple elders, so that if one leaves, dies, or can no longer serve for any reason the church is not without leadership while it looks to replace that man.  Thus at least two elders should be preferable for any church, so that the body may continue to function when faced with these kinds of issues.) 

But, most significantly, there are even more ways that a church may not determine who should be the elder.  No church, in any circumstance, has the right to add qualifications to the elder.  No church has the right to say one man has more education and therefore would be better, or more experience, or a larger family, or any other non-biblical attribute.  As we have already covered, the bible gives the qualifications for who may be an elder, and it is not in the purview of the church to change those qualifications even for the purpose of limiting the potential applicant pool.  A church who has failed in two tasks,of properly organizing itself with multiple elders so as not to be without an elder in the case of one leaving the church and of being self sustaining and generating elders within its body, does not rectify its failure by then failing in yet a third task and adding to the qualifications God has established in order to determine who may serve as elder of such a body.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ecclesiology and Hierarchy

I really wanted to do this post about another topic altogether, that being pastor search committees and their place in the church.  However, I realized before I could do a post on search committees I would first need to explain the proper role and function of a pastor.  After all, how could we form a committee to search for a pastor if we do not know what a pastor is?  And then I realized that before I could even speak to what a pastor is I would need to lay out some ground work on basic church ecclesiology in general with a specific examination of the hierarchical structure of the church.

Everyone with me so far?  No?  Oh, well I guess I should explain some of the words I'm throwing around so we can all be on the same page then.

What do I mean by ecclesiology?  Well, ecclesiology is basically a fancy term for the structure of the church. I'm sure that's about as clear as mud, so let me explain it a little further.  Ecclesiology is the study of what the church as a body or group should look like.  So ecclesiology addresses questions such as who can be a member of the church, should the church have certain rules, can the church kick someone out, who is the head of the church, how should authority be concentrated in the church, etc.  All those questions that people tend to think aren't really very important until their church goes and does something crazy like try and replace the carpet because the deacons thought it would be good to go with pile carpeting instead of shag are basically covered in ecclesiology.

And, because I'm using the term a little different than others, I want to take a minute to define "hierarchy" as well.  What I mean by hierarchy is really just the issue of roles and authority.  I do not mean to intimate that there is necessarily someone who is higher up the chain of command in a church, but rather what roles are there and who fills those roles.  The issue of roles may very well mean that someone is higher up the chain of command than someone else, for instance the Catholic Church is very much organized with different levels of command.  In other churches, such as some Baptist churches, the pastor may have very little to no real authority outside of his preaching, teaching, and visitation (we'll act like it's the same thing as counseling, but we won't use that term so that people don't get all flustered thinking their pastor is judging their psychiatric state).

So, here's the million dollar question (And since I'm going to answer it, you can feel free to send me a million dollars. No, really.): Does the bible contain instructions on ecclesiology that are binding on all churches in all times and in all places?

Some people argue that the bible does not contain instructions on ecclesiology, or at least the instructions are flexible.  That is to say, if the bible does not explicitly forbid something then that must mean it is okay.  This argument basically says that while God has given the Christian some instructions (for instance the basic qualifications for deacons and pastors) these instructions will look different in differing social and cultural contexts.  Whether we have one pastor or two, whether the pastor is the sole decision maker in the church or whether the deacons make the decisions, these are all cultural questions left up to each church if this argument is correct.

But, the other side of the argument is that the bible contains explicit instructions on church make up.  That is to say that God has voiced a definite order for the church and the church is only healthy when it conforms to that order.  If this argument is correct then that means the role and function of a deacon is described in the New Testament and to add to or modify the responsibilities of those who serve as deacons is not the right of the churches, for God designed the body and only he has the right to say how each part should function.  This position says that roles such as pastor and deacon are not culturally determined and do not change based on social context.

Now, I've divided the arguments rather woodenly, the fact is that both sides would agree there must be some cultural adaptation, and there must be some absolutes that do not change.  Every church agrees that this is true, and it is necessary to accept this to even have church.  For instance whereas a Reformed Baptist and a Traditional Presbyterian church would both agree on issues such as election, the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and many other issues as well.  These two churches may agree on eschatology, soteriology, Christology, theology, and pneumatology, but they will disagree on ecclesiology.  For the Presbyterian the covenantal nature of the church indicates that the children of the covenant people are part of the body, for the Baptist the regenerate nature of the church indicates that only professing believers should be a part of the body.  This is an ecclesiological difference that results in a situation where the two would be hard pressed to worship together because they would see the body of Christ very differently.  (Which is why we have Baptists and Presbyterians today.)

So, why do I say that everyone agrees there must be some cultural adaptation?  Simply because it is true.  There are fringe groups who say that churches are not mentioned in the New Testament, therefore Christians should only meet in homes and the only valid churches are house churches.  However, most Christians agree that there is no prohibition against building churches and that the development of church buildings set aside as specific meeting places is a natural and acceptable development based on the way Christianity has grown throughout the centuries.  Likewise we do not see guitars, organs, snare drums or didgeridoos mentioned anywhere in the bible as musical instruments available for use in worship, yet most Christians would agree such instruments are perfectly acceptable. (I really have no intention of arguing for what most people already agree on.)

Okay, so we have to have some cultural adaptation.  It would be nearly impossible to practice Christianity without cultural adaptation in some way.  I don't speak Greek and would have a hard time understanding a pastor who only gave his sermons in Greek.  In fact I don't even understand Koine Greek well enough to be able to follow someone reading the Greek New Testament without pausing fairly often to interpret it so I can understand.  (And that's reading, just listening is harder still.)

So, to go back to our million dollar question (got that check book out yet?): Are there rules given on ecclesiological structure that are non-negotiable?  To this question I believe we can give a firm and absolute, "Yes!"  In fact I think not only that there are definite rules on ecclesiology, but that the vast majority of churches today are in violation of those rules.  I will address what churches should look like, starting with hierarchy, but from this point on I want to make clear that I am addressing this from a very particular view.  I am a Baptist, by choice and tradition both.  I am not going to make the argument for why a Baptist ecclesiology is right and any other ecclesiology is wrong.  I am going to begin with the assumption of a Baptist ecclesiology and build from there.  There will be significant overlap with all churches who agree to a regenerate membership only, and there will be significant overlap with other traditions as well, but I am not here going to lay out why the Baptist ecclesiology is right.  Thus the applications from this point on will be somewhat more limited depending on whether you are examining other non-Baptist traditions (the majority of Christianity).

So, from a baptist perspective, what can we say about the hierarchy, that is the defined roles and positions within the church?  And what evidence can we find in Scripture to show us whether these roles are non-negotiable or culturally dependent?

First, let us address pastors.  The term "pastor" is not used in the New Testament.  However, the terms "Elder" and "Overseer" are used.  In the ESV the term "Elder" is used in the New Testament in the following places: Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 5:17, 19; 1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; and 3 John 1:1.  The term overseer is used in: 1 Timothy 3:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; and 1 Peter 2:25.  So, what can we learn about these two terms from these passages?

The first thing we see is that it appears that "elder" and "overseer" are interchangeable, depending on context.  So Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17 that elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  Without going into the issue of "ruling elders" vs. "preaching and teaching elders" we can see that all elders were expected to "rule" in some sense.  In the context the only thing they could be ruling over would be the church.  In 1 Timothy 3:5 we see that overseers are to be those who "care for God's church" in the same context as people who "manage" their own households.  Thus the overseer is to be one who manages the church.  Finally in Titus 1:7 we see that Paul says an overseer is God's steward.  Thus the overseer and the elder are the same thing: those who manage or rule the church, given to teaching and preaching the word of God and caring for his people.

But, we see more than just that.  If we look closely at 1 Peter 5:5 we see something more.  Throughout 1 Peter the term "elders" is used, mostly in the plural.  Now, the letter itself was a circular letter, that is it was intended to be read by many churches.  In many cases the term could be plural because Peter was speaking to multiple churches and wanted to make sure that everyone understood he was speaking to all churches, not just one elder who was in one of the churches.  However, in 1 Peter 5:5 we see that Peter says, "Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders."  This indicates that Peter was assuming that each church would have multiple elders.  Peter could easily have said, "you who are younger be subject to your elder" if he intended to indicate that each church should have one and only one elder.  By stating that the "younger" should be subject to the "elders" he assumes there are multiple "elders" each "younger" person should be subject to.  Likewise in Acts 14:23 we see that Paul and Barnabas appointed "elders" in "each church."  Explicitly in Acts we see the idea that there are multiple elders being appointed in "each church."

What's my point?  Well, the indication in Scripture is that the proper ecclesiology for a church, when we are discussing pastors/elders/overseers/bishops (yes the term "bishop" is a valid interpretation as well) is that there should be more than one in most churches.  On top of that, the role for an elder is fairly well defined: they are the shepherds, overseers, rulers, and stewards of God for the church.  The elder is to preach and teach, to visit the sick, to care for God's people, to counsel, and to watch over the church in general.

But wait, there's more!  Not only is the office well defined, and not only do we see indications that it is expected that multiple elders would be over most churches, but the qualifications are well defined too!  Paul tells Timothy and Titus both exactly what they should be looking for in an elder.  Paul doesn't say things like: "He must have a degree in theology, have at least 5 years experience as a leader in another congregation, be between 35-45 years old, be creative in his preaching, smile when he speaks, and be a good problem solver."  Paul gives an explicit list containing the attributes that God says are the qualifications for an elder, and none of the ones I listed above are on that list.

Yes, and? Okay, if we add any additional qualifications to an elder, for instance saying he cannot drink at all, or he cannot smoke at all, or he cannot wear tennis shoes, or he has to have a certain accent, what we are saying is that God's list is not sufficient for our church.  We are saying that though God gave a list of qualities for what we should be looking for in a pastor, we know better than God who would fit in our church.  We can justify this in any way we want, but that's what we are saying.  If we accept that God is the sovereign ruler of his church then we must also accept that anyone who meets his qualifications should be allowed to serve as the overseer of his church, even if that person isn't who we would have thought would be the best fit.

Our justifications (for instance saying, "Well the older people in our community won't accept a pastor who drinks a beer with his steak") do not hold muster when compared to the light of Scripture.  If we say only a certain man who meets a list of 50 qualifications can lead our church and grow it because of our local community, what we are saying is that the growth of the church is not dependent on the gospel or on God's adding people daily, but rather upon us having the right man who will speak with the right vocabulary and be eloquent enough to convince people to join.  This goes against everything we see in Scripture.

Most of our churches do not have a biblical ecclesiology when it comes to this first rung of hierarchy.  Most churches have one pastor.  In many churches the deacons are actually the rulers of the church.  In churches that have multiple pastors usually one is the "Senior" pastor and the others are "associates," having no real authority but to advise and carry out the orders of the "Senior pastor".  We do not see such divisions in Scripture, but rather see all elders treated equally, and held to the same standards.  If we would worship God rightly and expect him to bless us, we should first begin by aligning the body of God with his word, after all, what is the worship of our mouths if we deny his word with how we live?

A couple of additional (and better laid out) arguments on the issue of plurality of elders:

From a Southern Baptist Perspective

And another SBC perspective making the argument

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why 2 Chronicles 7:14 doesn't mean what you think it does

A lot of Christians quote Chronicles 7:14 as a verse that enjoins us to pray for our nation with the understanding that God will hear such a prayer and heal our nation from whatever evil besets us.  The verse itself reads, "if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV)  This seems a very straight forward verse, God clearly says that if his people who are called by his name (we Christians believe we are the people of God, and we are called by the name of Christ) humble themselves, pray, seek his face, and turn from their wicked ways (we like all of these things) then God will hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal our land.  That seems like a done deal.  So why am I saying it doesn't mean what you think it does?

As much as I want to agree and give a hearty, "Amen!" to the idea of Christians praying for our land and seeking God's healing upon our land, I cannot agree that this verse is the one to hold to for that point.  If I were to point to any verse I would much rather point to 1 Timothy 2:1-2, wherein we are specifically told what, or who, to pray for.  In this case we are told directly to pray for those in authority, and with the specific goal that we may lead godly quiet lives.  Such verses have great value in that we are instructed first to pray, second to pray for certain people, and third to pray for a specific goal.  The Christian who lifts up prayers on behalf of his rulers with the goal that he wants to live in peace in his community quietly doing the will and work of God knows that this prayer is in line with the will of God.

Okay, so I agree that we should be praying for our communities, so what's my beef with 2 Chronicles 7:14? Simply put, it is a matter of exegesis.

Recognizing that this passage results in a conditional statement of action the questions that must be asked are the following:  Who is this command written to?  When is the condition of the command met so that it goes into effect?  What are individuals commanded to do when the command goes into effect?  The argument most commonly put forward among Christians is that this command was written to Israel, and is written to the church today, so that when God brings judgment on the nation (i.e. when bad things happen), then Christians should be the first to repent of the wickedness going on in their culture and should pray to God, with the result being that God will heal the nation.

My argument is that this exegesis misunderstands who the command is written to, and thus today misunderstands the proper application of this verse.  By misunderstanding the "who" of the command the "what" and the "when" of the command are also misunderstood.  (This is not to argue for a causative relation, one could very well have misunderstood the "when" of the verse and thus misunderstood the "who" of the verse based on application.)  In order to demonstrate a full understanding of the "who" of this verse I am going to first attempt to explain the "when" and the "what" of this command.  Once we understand when this command goes into effect and what this command entails in terms of the action of the people under the command, then we will be in a position to better understand who this command applies to.  Once all of that is done then we can understand what the result of obedience was, and thus have a full understanding of the verse that will then allow us to understand how to apply this verse today.

So, as to the "when."  When should this command be applied?  Well, the verse indicates that God will heal the land, so that implies that the command goes into effect when the land needs healing.  But, if we back up one verse to 2 Chronicles 7:13 we see that this command applies specifically to when God causes drought, sends locusts, or brings pestilence upon the land.  This is not to say that God would not also hear prayers in other situations, but rather that God made specific reference these events.  But so what?

Well, if we want to know "so what" let us go to Deuteronomy.  Specifically let us read Deuteronomy 28.  If you notice in this chapter God discusses the curses that he will bring upon Israel when they disobey him and fail to keep his law.  He starts with pestilence (Deuteronomy 28:21), then discusses drought (Deuteronomy 28:22, 23-24), and then talks about locusts (Deuteronomy 28:38).

The point of looking at Deuteronomy is that we see the situation God is describing in 2 Chronicles is a reference to the rebellion that is about to start in Israel after the time of Solomon (even during the time of Solomon as his idolatrous wives are said to have turned his heart away from God).  God warned Israel that when they forsook his commandments and his law that he would bring about a series of judgments involving pestilence, drought, and locusts.  Included in these judgments was also the fact that Israel would suffer exile and be brought out from the land. In reference to the exile God made a promise in Deuteronomy 30:1-3 that he would hear the cries of the exiles and would bring them back to their land, but there was no promise of forgiveness prior to exile, only the continuing harshness of judgment up to and then throughout the exile itself.

What we see in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the gracious act of a kind God choosing to modify the covenant he made with Israel hundreds of years prior in Moab.  When God renewed the covenant with Israel in Moab they agreed, acting on behalf of their children, to take on all the blessings and all the curses of the covenant.  Thus the children of those men found themselves living in a time when the curses could finally come to fruition.  They finally had a king over them, one they had chosen and God had consecrated, and the full weight of the curses could be executed, and they had no way to escape the coming curses once they began to slide into immorality.  Yet, God, in his love for his people, by making this promise, gave his people a way to escape the curses once they began and forestall the utter destruction of their kingdom.  Once the curses began, if the people acknowledged that they had broken God's laws and had transgressed the covenant, then they could humbly come to God and pray to him, and he would forgive them this transgression and heal the land of the pestilence, the drought, or the locust, and thus forestall the exile.

When understood this way we see that this command had a special application under the covenant relationship that God had established with Israel.  But, this opens up a very interesting dilemma for us.  If I have understood the "when" correctly, and the "what" correctly (when the people realize they have transgressed the covenant, what they must do is pray for God's forgiveness), along with understanding the result correctly (God will forgive them and hold back the exile for a time), then the "who" of the command stands out in rather stark relief.  The only "who" this can apply to is the people of Israel during the time of the Old Testament.  The reason why is quite simple: This command was dependent upon the Old Covenant which was renewed at Moab as recorded in Deuteronomy, the Old Covenant has been done away with, it has been replaced by the New Covenant made by the blood of Christ.

Understanding the New Covenant opens up multiple problems for the direct application of this command.  For instance, as this was a command that reflected the judgment of God during the Old Covenant upon those who broke his law, it would be impossible to apply such a judgment to those in the New Covenant who do not live under the law and instead live under grace.  Likewise, as this was a command that developed by way of rebellion, we would be hard pressed to argue that the New Covenant people could live lives that would require repentance and turning from their wickedness.  Prior to being people of the New Covenant, most certainly, that is how we all lived, but now being in the New Covenant, having the Spirit of God, being filled with the love of Christ, to live in such a way seems impossible.  The idea of a New Covenant individual, much less a great number of individuals making up the New Covenant community, living in such wickedness certainly seems foreign to Scripture.  If indeed we are living such wicked lives that are not marked by regular repentance and a continual turning from wickedness, then I would honestly question whether any of us has a right to call ourselves "Christian" as such lives do not match up to the pictures of the saints we see in the New Testament.

So what do we do with this verse then?  I believe 2 Timothy 3:16 to be true.  Therefore I look to this verse and say that it was breathed out by God and that it is applicable to the Christian today.  But how shall we apply it, being as I have already said it cannot be directly applied?  We apply it through the atoning work of Christ, for all of God's promises are "yes" in Christ Jesus.

In Christ we recognize that we are in covenant with God, just as the people of Israel were.  In Christ we recognize that we have dire need for constant repentance, and that we are fully deserving of the wrath of God, of pestilence, drought, and locust.  And in Christ we recognize that the fullness of God's amazing forgiveness has been applied to us, so that our sins are forgiven and God is not waiting until some future date to pardon us.  Once we see all of this in Christ we look to our land and realize that we, like Abraham do not have a land here on earth.  Our country, our city, our neighborhood, none of it is our "land" in any final sense.  Israel was in the promised land, and we are waiting for the land promised to us.  Where God promised to heal the land stricken by curses for Israel we look forward to the land that will never be judged again, the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, and we acknowledge that all of this, our forgiveness, our claim to this land, our hope in a bright future where the curse is totally done away with, is all because of Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior forever more.

2 Chronicles 7:14 does not apply to us in promising that God will heal our country, because we are not the people of Israel in the Old Covenant, rather we are the true Israel, adopted by Christ in the New Covenant. We, like our father Abraham look for the land we shall inherit, and we recognize that we are but sojourners in the land here on earth.  We are not those who need to turn from wickedness, but rather we are those who have turned, and who daily take up our crosses and follow after our Lord.  We are not those who must humble ourselves, but rather those who recognize in full humility that we are objects of mercy, having nothing of our own we may brag about, though we must be reminded about this fact regularly.  The promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is bigger for us, it is a promise of an undefiled land, a land beyond the curse, a perfect land.  And to this promise we say, like Job, that though we die, we will see our redeemer, we ourselves and no other, with our own eyes, for our redeemer was slain and he lives.