When you share the gospel and get nothing but stony silence in response, what are you to think? When you call people to Christ and find that they will talk about anything except the key points of the gospel, what should you do?
Lost people are seldom completely silent when we challenge them with the truth. However, we may often find them to be silent on the aspects of the gospel that disturb them the most. Many will make a great deal of noise about things that they themselves do not consider to be important, while refusing to discuss or address the things that convict them the most.
This selective silence practiced by lost people is deceptive in nature. Apparent concern about things slightly related to Christianity is often a technique for avoiding the central truths of the gospel. By refusing to discuss these convicting truths, and by energetically discussing something else (anything else), they are merely avoiding a gospel that calls their lives to account.
One excellent example of this kind of deceptive silence is found in Acts 3 and 4. A man who had been lame from birth was made well by God’s working through Peter. A great crowd gathered almost immediately to see this man who had been made well. Peter took advantage of the opportunity to preach the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. The central truth that Peter emphasized in his sermon was the resurrection of Jesus. This is a key feature of the gospel since it proves that everything Jesus said about himself is true, shows that God has accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for sin and demonstrates that Jesus is able to give eternal life. Peter emphasized these truths by boldly asserting the resurrection in his sermon in Acts 3.
His central point of a resurrected Savior was so clear in the sermon that the enemies of the truth understood it, became offended, rallied their forces, and had Peter and John arrested before the message was finished. Scripture says that the reason they took such a drastic step is that they were “greatly disturbed because they [Peter and John] were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2).
Peter and John were kept in custody until the next day, when these same religious leaders brought them to trial. These leaders were in control of how they carried out the trial, but never mentioned the thing that they were so upset about. They were completely silent on the issue that was their greatest concern. This fact is particularly striking since most of them were Sadducees, who were very practiced at teaching against the resurrection of the dead.
Instead of challenging Peter on this subject that had infuriated and convicted them, they made a careful attempt to divert attention away from it. They asked by what power and in whose name Peter had healed the man born lame. It was a way of saying, “Who are you?” “What are your credentials?” “What right do you have to be working miracles?” They wanted to impeach the men, or if possible, the miracle. But they did not want to discuss what brought them the most discomfort and conviction.
You have probably met with the same kind of selective silence in your own witnessing. People are always ready to challenge your opinion, your interpretation, your right to speak and your background. They bring up the number of hypocrites in the church, the people in Africa who have never heard the gospel, the differences between denominations, or some list of theological labels that they may or may not understand. Their hope is that by emphasizing something else, they can keep you from talking about the call of the gospel on their lives personally.
Peter does not fall for any such diversionary tactics in Acts 4. He does not even allow the distraction of focusing on the miracle which God had worked. In his defense, Peter uses the miracle as a platform for presenting the gospel to these men, again making the resurrection of Jesus his central point. He went back to the resurrection because it is central to the gospel. He couldn’t avoid it just because the lost didn’t seem to be responding to it.
Those who put too much emphasis on the responses and desires of lost people would not have handled the opportunity as well as Peter did. Had Peter used the approach that is so popular today, he would have concluded that the resurrection was not important since it wasn’t “working.” He would have concluded that the resurrection was not “relevant” to that generation. Had he followed a more mainstream approach, he would have found a subject they were more outwardly interested in, gained their approval and brought reproach on the name of Christ.
The lesson from Peter’s defense in Acts 4 is clear. We must test the emphasis of our ministries by Scripture rather than by what lost people seem to be interested in. The lost world cannot be our gage in deciding what to emphasize. Only by proclaiming the gospel in the way Scripture proclaims it can we be sure that we are saying the right things.
In the current culture, people are asking questions like that a lot lately. The philosophical construct where truth is thought to be flexible, changeable and situational is generally summed up under the expression “post-modernism.” That view of life is an admission that the philosophy called “modernism” didn’t work. It is also an attempt to solve all the problems of life that modernism was unable to address. The answer, according to post-modernism, is to scrap everything from all of the old systems, including the concept of absolute truth. They say that since nothing else has worked, we need a whole new way of thinking in which everyone seeks his own flexible, situational “truth.”
As post-modernism has become popular, broader Christianity has not escaped its influence. The effect on people who call themselves Christians is perhaps best seen in the Emergent Church movement. Particularly noteworthy is this movement’s stated objective of interpreting the Bible by using the “hermeneutics of humility.” (Hermeneutics means “the science of interpretation”). The idea behind the hermeneutics of humility is that truth is too high for us, that it would be arrogant to presume to be able to know something so high and lofty. Proponents of this view claim that it is better just to explore—but never to come to any hard and fast conclusions regarding truth. They say we must leave room for differences between people and for the situations people face. To them, truth cannot be known—and may change anyway.
Post-modern thinking includes significant changes from ideas that were generally popular a few years ago. As a result, post-modernism seems to be very new. There are new labels, new people, and new attempts to address the problems of life. Yet Solomon told us that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Post-modern is just one more old lie, repackaged for a new generation. In reality, there is nothing new at all about the form of philosophy called post-modernism. Such ideas have been around for many centuries.
Scripture gives us one very clear example of this same thinking from almost 20 centuries ago. Jesus was on trial before Pilate. In that setting, he declared his divine purpose to Pilate by saying, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37).
From that verse, it is clear that Jesus believed truth could be known, that it was uniform for the whole world, and that it will never change at all. Since he had already declared himself to be the truth (John 14:6), and since as God he cannot change (Malachi 3:6), truth necessarily must also be unchanging. He said he came to testify to the truth and that certain people will respond to it.
As Jesus graciously declared his purpose to Pilate, he was flatly rejected by Pilate based on Pilate’s view of truth. Pilate believed that truth could not be known. John 18:38 says, “Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’ And when he had said this, he went out again…” Had he been asking in order to get an answer, he would have waited for the answer instead of walking away. He was flatly rejecting Jesus’ proclamation of truth that can be known.
Pilate had reached conclusions about truth that prevented him from believing Jesus. Without repenting of his way of thinking, Pilate could not come to genuine, saving faith. His view of truth put him completely at odds with God. He preferred his own wits, his own ability to interpret life, his own perceptions and conclusions. He would not tolerate the idea of objective truth that comes from outside of this world and instructs those in the world. He had no patience for truth to which all the world must adjust. He did not believe anything outside of his own mind could be as beneficial as what he already had within him.
Standing before the King of kings and hearing of God’s eternal purpose for the salvation of souls in Jesus Christ, Pilate brushed it all aside and continued to look for answers within himself. As a result of his human philosophy regarding truth, Pilate turned away from the only hope.
Had post-modernism been more popular as a religious movement in his day, Pilate would have been the perfect candidate. He already had the same philosophy. He already had exactly the same way of thinking. All that was lacking was a little religious activity and Pilate could have been as “Emergent” as anyone. What he could not be was genuinely Christian. Without a willingness to bow to absolute truth, he was doomed.
Post-modernism is simply a further decline in a system of human philosophy that has always been hopeless. In attempting to solve the problems of life without looking to God for objective answers, people only seal their own condemnation. Jesus is still the only solution to human problems. As he said himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). That is about as “absolute” as it can get.
After praying repeatedly for the removal of a problem in his life, the Apostle Paul got a startling answer from the Lord. He described the problem itself as “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.” “Torment” is a very graphic word indicating that this was no light-weight problem. As any other believer would do, Paul prayed that this problem would be removed from his life. Instead of getting what he asked for, he got this answer from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Having strength looks so good to us. We would all like to have more. But human strength is nothing compared to the power which the Lord makes manifest through our weakness. Freedom from problems in this life may be comfortable, but that comfort does not produce the kind of power mentioned here. That power is perfected in weakness.
Paul himself provides a riveting example of the difference divine power makes in the life of a believer. The scene is Philippi. The ministry there was brand new, but had already seen significant fruit. The people of the city reacted violently against the life-changing power of the gospel, and Paul and Silas became the objects of persecution. They were carried before the city leaders, stripped and severely beaten with rods. Then they were thrown in prison, and their feet were placed in stocks. The violence against them was officially sanctioned, but was also a serious breach of Roman law. It was unjust persecution being carried out by official consent.
The results of all this were very painfully for the two missionaries. They were bloody and bruised from their beatings, and were sitting on a cold floor in the dark, unable to move around. They were not in any way a picture of human strength at this point in their ministry.
Here is the biblical account of what happened next: “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
There was no complaining. No whining. No crying and asking God why he would let this happen to them. There was no shouting to the guards, “You can’t do this to me!” There was something here that is far more significant than human strength. Had the text said only that they prayed, we might assume they uttered a complaint. But they were singing hymns of praise to God. Such songs are the very opposite of complaining. Bloody and bruised, sitting uncomfortably in the darkness, with an uncertain future, they were giving glory to God in song after song. This is the power of God in the life of a believer.
Such power has a definite impact on the world around us. Scripture says, “And the prisoners were listening to them.” Though it was midnight, no one was scoffing. No one was shouting at them to “keep it down in there.” The particular segment of humanity occupying the prison that night recognized a power that stunned them to silent attentiveness.
The fruitful ministry in Philippi that Paul and Silas enjoyed cannot be separated from the weakness through which God made his power known. If you have a thorn in your flesh which God will not remove from you, remember that power is perfected in weakness. There will be fruit from what he allows you to endure.
The longer I serve as a pastor, the more I realize that no good thing ever happens apart from God’s direct intervention. No person has the power to change a human heart. No one can explain Scripture well enough to convince another person to believe it. No one can hold a diverse group of people together in harmony. Such blessings will be had only if God himself gives them.
We are fully dependent on God’s good pleasure. We can orchestrate no blessing on our own. This does not mean, however, that blessings cannot be had. On the contrary, Jesus teaches us: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11). This verse can only mean that God will give blessings when his people are faithful to ask him.
I’m personally never more aware of this need to ask him than when I prepare sermons and preach his Word. Every week I cry out to God asking him to bless his Word as I proclaim it. I pray for insight into his truth, into his people, into what to say and how to say it. I ask him to make his power known in my weakness. Every week, God is gracious far beyond anything I deserve. I shudder to think what would happen if I didn’t ask him to bless.
As significant as the pastor’s responsibility is in the proclamation of the truth, it is not only the pastor who has responsibility in this work. The church is responsible to prepare for worship, gather together, be attentive and receive the truth. The church also has a significant responsibility to ask for God’s blessing on the preacher and his preaching.
Corporate responsibility for the quality of preaching is one reason the apostle Paul asked often for prayer from the churches. He requested prayer for success in his proclamation of truth. His requests for prayer were not directed merely to other apostles, or to elders or deacons. They were directed to entire congregations.
Paul asks the Ephesian church to “Pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). To the Thessalonians he says, “Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you; and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
Every believer has a responsibility regarding the proclamation of the truth and the spread of the gospel. It is a responsibility that cannot be met without prayer. When the Word of God abounds and increases in the hearts of people, it is not because one man has prayed, but because many have done so.
“Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25).
There are relatively few church members who push the “benevolent dictatorship” as a God-given model for the church. There are, however, quite a few pastors who seem to have a strong preference for that model. There are also more than a few church members who are willing to defend it if the particular pastor involved has been able to fill the building with people or generate other exciting “results.” Like other forms of church structure, this one needs to be examined in the light of Scripture.
Autocratic leadership is often the default position of churches that reject majority rule after having had it for a significant period of time. Those who have suffered under the tyranny of the majority are often ready to give the “right” leader all the responsibility and power just to end the strife. They have seen the negative consequences of giving control to people who are not spiritually qualified to lead; and now they are looking for another option. A good and proven leader is at the helm, and the church just gives him more and more authority until he has it all.
In other instances, men of less regal character maneuver themselves into the position of full individual authority because they want that kind of power. Churches have various reasons for allowing or even desiring such an arrangement. Those reasons often center on perceived results or simple convenience.
From an earthly perspective, autocratic churches sometimes seem to work well. However, the arrangement is not healthy for the church or for the leader involved. This approach is fraught with danger and should be avoided for the sake of everyone involved.
The Apostle John references one potential result of autocratic leadership in 3 John 9-10. He states, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church.” Here was an autocratic leader who was out of control, refusing to be taught, isolating himself from believers and even excommunicating some of the faithful believers. One may well ask what can be done when a man who has been given all the power takes such a turn. Even with apostolic authority to rebuke this leader, this was clearly a difficult situation for John. It was even worse for the church. The problem might easily have been avoided if the church had refused to allow this man to put himself (or to be put) in a position of such unbalanced power.
The autocratic system of church polity is based on the idea that God has given to each church a single elder at a time. The lead pastor is said to be that exclusive elder. He is given sole elder authority to oversee the entire function of the church.
Elder authority is clearly taught in Scripture. Elders are to have actual power to lead, make decisions and control the general functioning of the church. What is not established as a standard of Scripture is for this authority to rest on one man only when it is possible to have multiple elders in a single church. Churches should pray and work toward having multiple elders who share the responsibility of oversight.
Rule by two or more elders working together in a single church is clearly established as the objective for New Testament churches. James 5:14 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James use of the plural for elders and the singular for church. These words put together this way can only mean that there were two or more elders in the single church mentioned.
In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.” “Overseers” is a title used interchangeably in Scripture with the term “elder.” The church at Philippi had more than one overseer (a body of leaders distinct from the deacons).
In 1 Timothy 5:7, Timothy is instructed, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Since Timothy was the lead pastor of a church, we may conclude that he was receiving instruction on how the elders (plural) were to be treated within the single congregation where he served. (The same situation applies in 1 Timothy 5:19-20). More than one elder per congregation is clearly the expected norm in Scripture.
What if you don’t have any elders?
If a church declines and looses elders in job transfers or death, is it no longer a biblical church when it gets down to one elder? Is it unbiblical to begin a new church with less than two elders? Is it possible for a church to embrace elder rule, but having no biblically qualified elders yet, to be a biblical church in spite of this lack?
The book of Acts provides definitive answers to all of these questions. In Acts 13 and 14, Paul preached in the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. Many people were saved in those places as God blessed the preaching of the gospel. Since no new convert is ever to be made an elder (1 Timothy 3:6), those new congregations had no elders for a time, Paul had moved on to new places of service without appointing elders, since no one was qualified. In Acts 14:21-23, we are told that Paul returned to those same cities and appointed elders for them in every one of their churches. Sufficient time had passed to observe who was gifted and qualified, and elders were appointed. But for a time, there were biblical churches which had no elders at all.
In new churches or struggling churches where no man, or only one man, is qualified to be an elder, the church need not disband or consider itself unbiblical over its lack of two or more elders. Special care must be taken until the leadership can rest on more than one man. This is a challenging time that carries specific dangers for a church. However, this temporary condition is not necessarily sinful. Men in the position of being the single elder of a small church must be careful to remain accountable to others. Seeking input from other biblical churches is a great help. By God’s grace, he carries his people through such times. Churches must trust God as they diligently pray for and seek to have biblically qualified elders to share the leadership load.
There is a significant distinction between a church that temporarily has fewer than two elders and a church that chooses an autocratic system of church government as an intentional objective. A period of development for raising up an elder body is a normal part of growth for a new church and may be a necessary part of strengthening an existing church. An intentionally autocratic system is not a normal or healthy condition for any church and will be rejected by wise leaders and wise church-members alike.
The Baptist Faith and Message, the confessional document of the Southern Baptist Convention, contains the following statement on the function of the church (Section VI, The Church): “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic process.” While Baptists are certainly not the only group to believe the church must operate by congregational vote, their statement is very clear and serves to illustrate the position held by many today. Their position is that the church is designed by God to function by majority rule through the voting of members of the congregation. As the phrase “democratic process” implies, each member in good standing has equal input in decision making. The common means of guiding these congregations through the process of bringing issues to a vote is the parliamentary procedure laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order. Members who are below a certain age are usually excluded from voting.
Congregational voting dates back at least to the mid-seventeenth century. At that time, most Baptist congregations selected their leaders by popular vote. Regarding the elder and his office, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states: “That he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage [vote] of the church itself.” Deacons were chosen by “like suffrage” (Chapter 26, Article 9).
From a human perspective, this is a very long history. But is it long enough?
Is congregational voting the biblical model for church function?
In answering that question, one must distinguish between a consensus and a vote. It is clear that Scripture encourages a consensus among church members. We are commanded to have one mind. Philippians 1:27-28 says, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents.” Having one mind is the standard for God’s church.
In the New Testament, we see this pattern worked out in the church at Jerusalem. In Acts 6, when men were selected for the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows at the recommendation of the apostles, it says, “And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5, emphasis added).
This passage clearly indicates congregational involvement. It clearly indicates that there was a consensus, since “the statement found approval with the whole congregation.” It also clearly indicates that a choice was made. What the passage does not mention is that a vote was taken in order to make that choice. Nor was the action initiated by the congregation. That was done by the apostles (men who held their positions without any human vote having taken place).
Congregational churches tend to assume a vote was the means to reaching the consensus in Acts 6, but this assumption does not hold up well under scrutiny. Even when voting takes place, the vote never produces a consensus and seldom reveals one. In practical reality, a congregational vote is a choice of “yes” or “no” to a proposal that has been made. That proposal may not address the concerns of many in the congregation. Discussion is limited to the distilled idea about to be voted on. In casting a vote, the voter is sometimes choosing the lesser of two offensive options and will not be satisfied with any outcome. When the church’s vote is not unanimous, congregational voting may well create disharmony rather than consensus.
Consensus is far more likely to be reached through good communication between leaders and the congregation, without Roberts Rules of Order interfering with open discussion, and without limiting the content of the discussion to a single motion or the duration of the discussion to a single meeting. If a statement finds approval with an entire congregation, the leaders and the people will know it without a democratic process.
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem counsel reached a consensus regarding Gentile believers. Acts 15:22 states, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” This passage, like Acts 6, lacks any statement to indicate that a vote was the means of reaching consensus within the leadership body or the congregation as a whole. They did what seemed good to them as a group. When they had worked through all the questions and reached a consensus, everyone knew it.
Scripture is conspicuously silent on the issue of voting. It was not a part of the cultures of the Old or the New Testament. It was not imposed on those cultures by commands of Scripture, as a good many other concepts were. It is not called for by Scripture. Church voting comes from western tradition, not from Scripture.
To this rather clear reality, many congregational churches respond that voting is not prohibited, so churches are allowed to use it as a helpful tool. In the absence of a command for churches to vote or not to vote, is there anything in God’s revelation by which one may decide the question?
One consideration is the frequent error of the majority. Throughout the history of ancient Israel it is demonstrated that the majority is often horribly wrong. This is true because the majority of people have not been gifted by God specifically to deal with the demands of leadership or qualified for leadership by the process given by God. As a result, they tend to be led astray (in large groups).
The biblical model for leadership within God’s church involves qualified and tested leaders making decisions on behalf of the body. This does not take place without the body’s involvement, but it does take place without granting equal power to those who have not been biblically qualified as elders. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear regarding qualifications and duties of these leaders. If equal input is given to those who have not been biblically qualified, the church in question is simply rejecting God’s commands regarding the function of his church.
The reason that voting is absent in Scripture may well be that voting itself is in conflict with the God-given structure for the church. Hebrews 13:17 commands, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” A vote that would remove decision-making responsibility from qualified leaders is in direct opposition to the command of this text.
Majority rule cannot bear the test of a careful study of Scripture. It is a system which stands in opposition to God’s design regarding church leadership and church function. As such, it is a concept that can be gently laid aside by the believer who is willing to test everything by the Word and to adjust his life accordingly.
How the local church is supposed to be run has been the point of many conflicts in Christian circles. People are often very committed to their points of view on the question—and very impatient with those who disagree. Let me suggest that only one point of view has any legitimate claim over all the others. That one point of view, obviously, is the one revealed by God in his Scripture. The idea that the church must be run like a business must be subjected to the same biblical scrutiny that we are to give any view.
Is the church to be run like a business? Is the church like a business in any way at all? Or do such ideas arise out of human philosophy?
There is no biblical basis for comparing God’s church with a business. The Bible never equates the two in any way at all. The “business model” is familiar to many in the United States, but this familiarity does not make it a biblical model for the church.
One might ask what sort of model the Bible does give regarding our relationships within the church or our activities as a church. Does God give us anything to which we can compare his institution of the church? The answer is a resounding “yes!” God frequently compares his church to another institution he established: the family. The church is to operate like a family.
In Scripture God is called our Father (not our CEO). Christians are called brothers and sisters in Christ (not employees). We are said to have an inheritance (not a retirement program). Scripture speaks of family relationships that endure. No one is ever fired or retired. If anyone does leave the church permanently, he or she is considered never to have been a genuine part of the family (1 John 2:19).
We come into the family of God by birth and are given all the benefits of family membership immediately. 1 Peter 1:3-5 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (emphasis added).
In a family, there are shared responsibilities. Someone cleans the restroom while someone cuts the grass. One person may do most of the cooking, while another may do most of the earning of money to buy the food. But no one does all the work while others look on. There are no second or third class family members. In the family and in the church, people are to work together for common goals.
In a family, there is a clear system of leadership which is imposed on the members of the family by God himself. Ephesians 5:22-23 says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” Ephesians 6:1-3 commands, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.”
Husbands and fathers do not choose the role of leadership. It is given to them by divine decree. If they refuse to accept their God-given role, they are still responsible as leaders. It is not theirs to decide whether to lead. The father’s leadership is not changed if someone within the family would prefer to have it another way.
Within the church, leaders are the ones who are given particular gifts for leadership and oversight. These gifts are given by God with no one but him controlling who is legitimately gifted to lead. Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us, “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (emphasis added). If leaders abdicate that responsibility, they are guilty of being poor leaders, but they are still the leaders. If church members refuse to be led by biblically qualified leaders, they are guilty of rebellion against God, but the leaders are still the leaders because God made it that way. Hebrews 13:17 reminds us, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
In a family, fiscal responsibility is necessary, but the nature of the resources is entirely different from those of a business. The assets are family assets. They do not accrue to someone else’s benefit. A family home is enjoyed by the family. It is not a place of labor owned by someone else.
Does this distinction really matter?
How you think about the church does matter. It has a significant impact on your contentment, on how (or whether) you participate in the God-given objectives of the church, and on how you relate to others within the body of Christ.
If we try to operate the church as a business, we will find ourselves at odds with God’s design. We will have imposed a worldly philosophy that is in conflict with God’s purpose. Such a mindset can only lead to striving, disagreement and difficulty. If, on the other hand, we see the church as a family, we are far more likely to rest in God’s purpose and work together in harmony to glorify him.
The man had just been fired from a Southern Baptist church. He was in the process of explaining to a concerned church member what had really happened. As you might expect, his version was radically different from the one that came through “official channels.” I was trying not to listen, but you can’t divert your ears in the same way you can divert your eyes, so I was stuck having to hear the tale. It was one that is far too familiar to anyone who has spent much time in Southern Baptist circles.
Just over six years before, I was telling a similar story. This one had all the same features and themes. There was lying about the real issues. There was a church that was ignoring biblical qualifications for leadership and refusing to hold sinful lay-leaders accountable. There were a lot of people who were upset. There was plenty of gossip being spread (that act being excused as an attempt to handle the problem). There was even the comforting excuse that “our church has always done things this way.” Of course, there was also a man whose life was turned upside-down, who now needed to find another job to support his family. It was an ugly situation; but in many ways, it was vintage Southern Baptist church life. The story has been repeated many hundreds of times, with only minor changes in detail.
It makes you wonder why that sort of story happens so often within the culture of Southern Baptist churches. The obvious answer is that it is sin. But why are these particular sins so often manifest within many Baptist churches? Other groups may display the same sins, to be sure, but non-SBC groups tend to display other unique sets of characteristic errors and problems. Liberal denominations tend to be characterized by open justification of immoral activity. Charismatic groups tend to be characterized by emotional excesses. Why, when Southern Baptists sin, are they so often characterized by the kind of selfish infighting where people will do anything in order to have their way?
I would assert that these particular errors are the natural results of rejecting the doctrines of grace. I do not mean to say that this poor staff member whom I overheard was fired because he held to the doctrines of grace. In his case it was something to do with a disagreement over music style. I mean to say that rejecting the doctrines of grace will bring definite results over time, and those results include self-centered willfulness.
Whatever doctrine you hold, your doctrine will determine your outlook on yourself and on others; it will produce definite views on the church and on God. When churches sow a self-centered, self-willed theology, they reap self-centered, self-willed people. Those people will soon learn to bend and twist Scripture in order to choose what they want. God’s decrees are not the important thing in such a theology; and the needs of other people are insignificant in comparison to the god of self-will.
So much of life in modern SBC churches feeds into this mindset that self is the ultimate principle in life. One person’s vote on any decision is said to be just as important as anyone else’s vote, whether that person is qualified for leadership or not. One person’s perception is said to be just as valid as someone else’s, whether that person is living in sin or not. There is often general agreement that the staff must be kept under control. They must not be allowed to do something in “our” church that “we” don’t approve of. The question of what God says is often completely absent. Sadly, far too many pastors have given up the battle and are now spending their time bringing offerings to this “god of self” that their churches have come to worship.
None of these common problems happen just because Christians are still sometimes sinful. There is something in particular that is driving people to these expressions of the sinful heart rather than to some other expression of it. That something is the rejection of the doctrines of grace. The false theology of libertarian self-will ultimately must bear fruit; and it bears the fruit of selfishness. It bears the fruit of a church culture where God’s choices are not even considered. His decrees affect neither the doctrinal statement nor the business meeting. They impact neither the foundational doctrines of the church nor the daily decisions and actions that must rest on what the church believes. So this week, one more Southern Baptist minister lost his job on the altar of self-will. I wonder if he knows that it was ultimately a doctrinal issue which caused him to be sacrificed.