Archive for the ‘Disputes’ Category

When a Pastor and His Church Don’t See Eye to Eye April 25, 2012

What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.

What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.

I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.

I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.

To Churches

  1. Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. You called your pastor to faithfully study, exposit, and proclaim God’s Word. If he preaches concepts that you find uncomfortable, don’t automatically assume that he is out to get you, but rather assume that he is merely faithfully relaying to you that which God has taught him through Scripture.
  2. Listen closely to what the Spirit may be teaching you. If your toes are stepped on by a faithful exposition of Scripture, perhaps they needed to be squashed. Your impulse to reject the pastor’s teaching and/or attempt to oust him from the pulpit may be your flesh rebelling against changes the Spirit is desperately trying to work in your heart. If the message hurts, don’t reflexively shoot the messenger, but examine the message and “…test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” (1 John 4:1).
  3. Let the pastor know that you don’t understand or are uncomfortable with his message(s). This goes back to the first point–your pastor would be thrilled to know that you as his congregation are engaging with what he is teaching and desiring to understand it better, and he most likely would graciously spend whatever time is necessary to help you understand and bring clarity to the situation. If he rebuffs your honest (and courteous) questions, that might be a sign that he is “off the reservation” in what he has been teaching.
  4. If there are certain leaders in your church who are trying to turn the congregation away from a faithful pastor, ask them to repent or resign. Look at the character qualities required of elders/overseers in Scripture. I’ve highlighted specific qualities that need to be considered in this type of situation: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). When a leader or leaders in your church fail to exhibit these characteristics in how they approach a doctrinal or practical conflict with the pastor, red flags should go up.
  5. Ask the Lord to bring reconciliation to your church. Since we are fallen human beings, discord, frustration, anger, misunderstanding, and partisanship come easily to us. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are hard, and must be worked through the Spirit in us. If your church is embroiled in doctrinal strife, pray for healing and pray for God to be glorified through it.
  6. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you follow the first five recommendations in this list and you find that your pastor is teaching you truth in “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5), then apologize for assailing him and submit to his preaching as he submits himself to the Word of God.

To Pastors

  1. Be loving in how you present truth. If God is teaching you and you are growing spiritually by leaps and bounds, do not let that become a source of pride to you. Don’t share the things you are learning with your congregation in a way that belittles their spiritual maturity or intellectual capacity. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). Your congregation will best take the medicine of hard truth when it is delivered in a spirit of loving concern and encouragement.
  2. Recognize that the Lord is working on people in His time-frame. Just because the Lord has given you fresh appreciation and insight into His Word does not mean He has worked accordingly with your entire congregation at once. If you assume that your epiphany (which may be founded on decades of study, suffering, and prayer) has to be shared by your whole church immediately, you’re setting yourself up for a crash. Be patient, and trust the Lord to use His Word in them as He has in you.
  3. When there is misunderstanding, be a teacher. If your congregation balks at something you’re teaching them, listen sincerely to their concerns, patiently correct their doctrinal errors with truth, and endeavor to be as clear as possible to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks from their understanding of the Word.
  4. Ask the Lord to confirm your ministry and your message. If you are certain of the Lord’s favor in your study and exposition of specific passages of His Word that are troubling your congregation, pray that He will open their eyes to His truth. You are not standing in your own speaking exegetical skills, you are standing before your church in the strength of the Lord proclaiming the truth of His Word. It’s up to Him (not you!) whether they respond.
  5. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you proclaim a new insight from God’s Word, and your congregation (or your elders) reject it, don’t dismiss their criticisms out of hand. It could be that your enthusiasm over a spiritual discovery has led you to conclusions that are not in keeping with the whole of Scripture. If faithful men and women in your body bring correction, further study reveals errors in your thought process, and the Spirit brings conviction, do not hold tightly to your message. Rather repent, thank those who rebuked you, and continue in ministry with newfound humility and appreciation for the gathered Body of Christ.
  6. Be willing to take a stand if you know that you are in the right. If, on the other hand, your teaching is rejected by your congregation or its leaders, they may be reacting to the truth of God’s Word by clinging to their own sins or the “tradition of men” (Col. 2:8). If you have examined your message and your heart in proclaiming it, then speak boldly, resting in the assurance that “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected [the Lord]” (1 Sam. 8:7). If you lose your pastoral position or half your church leaves because of the truth of your message (not because of error or your demeanor in delivering it), then take comfort in Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who went before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

Posted by Justin Lonas

Captured by Heart February 15, 2012

These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.

At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”

To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.

Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.

This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.

If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.

In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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