Are denominations dying? That seems to be the common wisdom. Certainly the mainline denominations are bleeding out; people are leaving those churches en masse. But what about denominations of evangelical churches that are holding fast or growing?
I’m no demographer, so I can’t give you data to test the idea that denominations have seen better days. But this common line does seem to be picking up a genuine trend that deserves attention—namely, that relatively new ways of relating church to church are at least complementing, and sometimes replacing, traditional denominational structures.
What follows is based on anecdotal, entirely unprofessional observation of (American) evangelical churches. But my goal in this article isn’t so much quantitative analysis as qualitative description. I aim to describe and theologically evaluate a handful of “glues” which bind pastors and churches together, and offer pastors a few tools for thinking through who to partner with, and how.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
First, though, we need to ask: what has changed? Why do new ways of relating pastor-to-pastor or church-to-church seem to be cropping up, and even competing with older structures?
There are probably a number of reasons: the theological downgrade of the old denominations, the ever-growing Western skepticism toward all forms of authority, even the shrinking of the globe due to revolutions in communication technology. Just consider this last factor and the rise of the internet. Sure, many of the connections the internet fosters are “weak ties”—like Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Yet communications technology gives those “weak ties” the chance of becoming stronger ties. And it allows us to sustain stronger ties over distances that would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago. With the rise of communication technology, traditional denominational structures aren’t the only show in town—or even the leading one—for connecting pastors and churches.
Further, by democratizing access to information, the internet has also democratized ecclesial identity formation. Previously models of church were inherited, now they’re mixed and matched. Certainly plenty of pastors throughout the ages have read widely. But I’d guess that today more pastors are influenced by figures outside their denomination than was true in former generations. Eighteenth century Baptists may have read Jonathan Edwards, but they couldn’t download his sermons for free. Bottom line: for many pastors and churches, informal ties to leaders and movements are growing stronger, and formal ties to denominations are growing weaker.
AN INDEPENDENT CONVERSATION
In speaking about churches as independent entities that can be “glued” together in a variety of ways, I am, of course, speaking as a congregationalist. That is, I don’t believe that the “church” on earth exists in any formal, institutional manifestation over and above the local church.
Many congregations, though, do belong to such an extra-local structure. Roman Catholicism is one kind, Eastern Orthodoxy another, Episcopalianism another, and Presbyterianism still another. In all these polities, the local church is formally accountable to an outside individual or entity. We call these “connectional” polities to recognize that this authoritative connection is an intrinsic part of what it means, on this understanding, to be the church.
A connectional polity necessarily enforces a certain confession and practice: someone is able to say “this is out of bounds” to a local church. This means that a connectional church’s very identity is wrapped up in its association with the broader communion in a way that isn’t the case for independent churches.
Connectional polities have their own promises and pitfalls, but I won’t address them here. That’s not because I think they’re unbiblical—though I do—but because most 9Marks readers belong to churches that are formally independent. To put it crassly, connectional polities more or less determine your friends—or enemies!—for you. On the other hand, independent churches have to look up and ask, “Who do we want to associate with, and how?” Hence my focus on the latter.
WHY SHOULD CHURCHES COOPERATE? FOR OUTREACH AND INREACH
In order to describe and assess what holds churches together, we should first think a bit about why they seek to hold together. Jonathan Leeman’s piece “A Church and Churches: Integration” offers several exegetical and theological reasons for why churches should band together. Here I want to take a snapshot from another angle—a practical one. For what practical purposes should churches attempt to stick together?
As I see it, there are basically two: to fulfill the great commission, and to both receive and supply what is lacking in the life of a local church. You could call these two goals outreach and, to use some evangelical-ese, inreach.
Outreach: The great commission is bigger than any local church (Matt. 28:18-20). To evangelize all peoples and establish churches across the globe requires that churches cooperate. And the same is true when it comes to evangelizing our local communities.
Inreach: On the other hand, churches should also seek to aid in supplying each other’s needs as they have opportunity (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). If you’ve got a counseling situation that’s spiraling out of control, I hope there’s a wise pastor friend across town you can call. If your church is devastated by a natural disaster, I hope other local churches will rally around you.
TESTING A FEW TYPES OF GLUE
These two goals of outreach and inreach form the backdrop against which I’ll asses a few types of “glue” that hold churches together. While each of these types of glue can be considered on its own, many connections between churches, especially denominational ones, will combine several of them. Think of a denomination as Super Glue, with some of these individual glues as the ingredients.
The first kind of glue to consider is “ethnic” identity—note the scare quotes. I don’t mean ethnicity per se, though ethnicity is a very powerful glue. Instead, I am using the term metaphorically to refer to churches that share a tradition so culturally thick that it functions like an ethnic identity.
This is many people’s experience of church life in the Southern Baptist Convention. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention became a centralized provider of an all-encompassing church culture: church holidays, Sunday School lessons, midweek programs, music, and more. SBC churches became like McDonalds: you could pop into any one of them, any week of the year, and know exactly what was on the menu.
This kind of “ethnic” identity fosters an intense brand loyalty. On the one hand, that loyalty extends naturally to the thousands of other churches which share the same programmatic profile. Hence many Southern Baptists’ fierce devotion to the denomination’s central mechanism, the Cooperative Program.
On the other hand, this brand loyalty is a double-edged sword. For one, the identity itself is only as biblical as the content of all the programs. Further, the very emphasis on universal, standardized programs can foster a consumer mindset rather than responsible, relational ministry. Finally, this kind of identity can foster a hermetically sealed subculture that finds it difficult to adapt to new people, new places, and new times.
A second kind of glue to assess is personality—usually the personality of a key pastor who is either a formal or informal denominational head. Sometimes attachment to a personality can lead one into a new denomination. More commonly, this personality glue shows up in megachurches that either birth or effectively become their own denominations. An example of the former would be the Willow Creek Association. For the latter, think of any multi-site church that has “campuses” not just across its city, but across the country and beyond.
Again, in these kinds of relationships there’s more to the story than personality. There’s always some shared doctrine and practice, on which more below. But often, if you take away the big personality the center won’t hold, which means personality is an active ingredient in the glue.
On the one hand, I don’t want to deny that God can use singular personalities to achieve big things—John Wesley’s name heads that list. But on the other hand, attaching yourself and your church to a personality puts you in danger of multiplying not just another man’s fruitfulness, but also his errors. When a group of churches’ identity derives more from a single man than from a more objective tradition—say, a time-tested confession of faith—those churches may be building on pretty thin ice.
If your church is attached to a big personality, how many church members were initially drawn, at least in part, because of your connection to the big man? What happens if he falls into sin or serious error? Who or what holds him accountable? What happens if the big personality’s interests conflict with the local church’s? Who should members side with?
A third kind of glue is what I’ll call theological vision. As I said above, in this internet age pastors and churches often find they have more in common with churches of other denominations that share their overall theological vision than with churches in their denomination that don’t.
Conferences like Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition both build on, and in different ways seek to foster, this kind of interdenominational unity. Once every two years, T4G casts a thick theological vision for ministry and encourages pastors to build friendships across secondary divides. TGC presents a slightly broader spectrum, creating more of a “village green” feel on its website and at its conference—though this village green is fenced in by robust doctrinal and practical commitments. Further, while T4G is merely a three-day event every two years, TGC has begun to foster cooperative structures with a life of their own, such as their regional chapters.
Because of the shared theological vision which they embody, these two conferences have become shorthand for a pretty long list of doctrinal and practical commitments. If someone identifies with either of these events, you can take a lot of common ground for granted—common ground in which real partnerships can quickly sprout.
How well can these conferences foster cooperative outreach and inreach between churches? Probably the best thing they do is encourage pastors, and help pastors get to know each other. You might not have known there was a likeminded pastor fifteen minutes up the road until you met him in Louisville or Orlando. But if a conference helps you make that connection, over time your relationship can organically grow into a fuller partnership between your churches.
On the other hand, cooperation based on a shared theological vision has its limits. The cooperation T4G and TGC can foster necessarily excludes ecclesiological distinctives like the sacraments and polity—the very things which make a local church what it is. And since the goal of the great commission is planting and nurturing churches, this means that a “theological vision” by itself isn’t enough to foster long-term cooperation for great commission goals.
NEEDED: AN ECCLESIAL VISION
To foster long-term cooperation toward great commission goals, what you need is not merely a theological vision but an ecclesial vision. In order to work with another church to plant churches, you need to agree about what it is you’re trying to plant. You need to agree on the answer to questions like:
- What is baptism and who are its proper subjects?
- What are the qualifications for church membership? Is (believer’s) baptism on the list?
- How should a church be structured? Who has final authority in matters of membership and discipline?
- How do we decide what to do, and how to do it, in corporate worship?
- What is a pastor’s fundamental job description?
Of course, you can agree about such matters but disagree about essential areas of theology, and then you’re back to square one. That’s why an ecclesial vision requires theological agreement too—more precisely, enough shared theology to constitute a church together.
MULTIPLE LAYERS OF PARTNERSHIPS
The problem is, when many pastors stroll through the denominational grocery aisles, they don’t see any visions on offer they particularly resonate with, whether theological or ecclesial. Or perhaps their preferred vision is just one among many that are tolerated, and by no means the majority view.
If there’s a traditional denomination or network of churches which perfectly matches your theological and ecclesial commitments, the decision to link arms is a no-brainer. But what do you do if there’s no perfect match on offer?
I’d encourage you to think in terms of multiple layers of partnerships. Instead of seeking one all-encompassing identity to wrap your church in, think about multiple overlapping networks.
To begin: What other churches in your area do you have a strong relationship with? Or even just a friendship with their pastor? What formal or informal ways can you partner with them? If they disagree about ecclesial distinctives, you can still meet for fellowship, supply some of each other’s needs, and to some degree cooperate in local outreach.
If other local churches share your ecclesial vision, how can you build your friendships into a more durable partnership? Can you organize pulpit supply to fill a need and train young preachers? Or form a regular pastors’ fraternal where you get into the nitty gritty of shepherding issues? Or even fund a church plant together?
Those are two overlapping local layers. In addition to these local layers, what about a larger scale denomination? Local and larger partnerships can complement each other rather than competing with each other. You may not love everything you see in a big-tent denomination. But if there’s enough basic theological and ecclesial agreement, that big-tent denomination may be able to multiply your church’s efforts for the great commission in a way that outpaces a merely informal relationship.
Further, some larger networks or denominations serve complementary goals. For example, plenty of churches are dually aligned with Acts29 and the SBC. Many brothers I know partner with Acts29 for the coaching and encouragement, and with the SBC in order to support global missions and pastor training.
My point is simply that relationships between churches are not an all-or-nothing affair. They can be more or less formal. They can be local or global. They can focus on planting and building churches, or more broadly on promoting gospel work throughout your city. And you can invest differently in these partnerships depending on your church’s resources, other options for cooperating with likeminded churches, and the needs of your community.
I want to conclude with three brief encouragements for pastors. First, if you’re feeling lonely and isolated, look first to your fellow elders. Do you have fellow elders in the first place? If not, let your loneliness in ministry spur you to patiently lead your flock toward adopting the biblical model of multiple shepherds. And if you do have multiple elders but still feel isolated, consider how you might spread around the shepherding load.
Second, if you can only pick one place to invest, build around a shared ecclesial vision. If there’s only one other pastor in your town who agrees with your theology and ecclesiology, build into each other and your churches. Work together to raise up other likeminded churches, and to put good resources in other pastors’ hands.
Certainly meeting with brothers who have shared theology can be an encouragement and lead to practical partnerships. But for those partnerships to serve great commission ends over time, they have to build on shared ecclesial DNA. So multiply your networking efforts by focusing on partnerships which could, by God’s grace, result in new and renewed churches.
Finally, be willing to give more than you receive. Don’t judge a denomination or network only by what it can give you and your church. Instead, be willing to invest for the sake of others. The payoff may happen in your city or across the world, next year or in the next generation.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider what makes different local churches independent from one another. Here we consider how they should integrate.
To understand how and why our churches should cooperate, it is worth taking a second to step inside the U. S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, while the ominous storm of angry Muslim students brews just outside the embassy gates. You probably know that the mob eventually broke into the compound, and fifty-two Americans spent 444 days as hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Yet don’t focus on what eventually happened; focus on what it would have been like to be inside the embassy while the fury was still building. What would you be doing in those moments?
Presumably, you would be on the phone in a frantic search for friends. The U. S. State Department, the nearby Canadian Embassy, the Swedish Embassy in town, even sympathizers in the Iranian government—you would be grabbing for whatever friends you could find.
What you would not do is assume that your little embassy compound, floating like a storm-embattled boat in the middle of the seething urban sea that was Tehran, sat fine all by itself. You would not try to “go it alone!” as if the fate of the U.S. government’s diplomatic mission in the world depended upon your embassy’s shoulders.
Yet strangely, this is the attitude that many of our local churches maintain as we seek to undertake God’s mission in the world. We know we are sojourners and aliens. We know other embassies and friends are “out there.” We know the world, the flesh, and the devil oppose us like a bloodthirsty mob—“for your sake we are being killed all the day long” (Rom. 8:36). But too easily our churches undertake Christ’s mission all by our lonesome. We go it alone.
Just consider: does your church cooperate with other local churches in evangelism and missions, in discipline, in counseling, in mercy ministry, in prayer? Or, honestly, does it do its work fairly independently?
A BETTER APPRECIATION FOR FAMILY TIES
Open the Bible and you will find a better appreciation for family ties among the apostolic churches. They shared love and greetings:
- “All the churches greet you” (Rom. 16:16).
- “The churches of Asia send you greetings” (1 Cor. 16:9).
- “All the saints greet you” (2 Cor. 13:13; also, Eph. 4:22).
- “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15; also Col. 1:4).
They shared preachers and missionaries:
- “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18).
- “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church” (3 John 5-6a).
They supported one another financially with joy and thanksgiving:
- “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 15:25-26).
- “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12; also, 2 Cor. 8:1-2).
They imitated one another in how to live the Christian life:
- “…you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:7).
- “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).
These apostolic testimonies of shared love and support between the earliest churches are matched by apostolic exhortations. They were told to greet one another:
- “Greet the church in their house” (Rom. 16:5).
They were instructed to love one another by caring for one another financially:
- “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
- “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men” (2 Cor. 8:24).
They were cautioned about whom to receive as teachers:
- “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
- “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves” (2 John 7-8a).
They were exhorted to pray for other churches and Christians:
- “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
They were exhorted to imitate other churches in steadfastness and faith:
- “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).
The topic of the relationship between churches gets difficult, of course, because it involves different ideas of authority between churches, which is where denominations divide from one another.
But wherever you come down on the question of authority between churches, it is important to recognize that our local congregations should in some measure be integrated with one another. And your church will best fulfill the Great Commission when its life is connected in relationship and awareness with other churches.
It’s worth seeing several things churches share in common and the practical implications these connections have for our corporate lives.
WE SHARE THE SAME CHRIST
Notice, first, that different Christians share the same Lord and Christ, as comes through in Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth…called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. 2 Cor. 1:1).
Different churches call upon the same Christ. They are possessed by the same Lord.
Think about what this means: the fact that we have the same Christ, Lord, and King means our many churches are bound together as a distinct body politic, or kingdom, or nation. Just as a common parent makes for familial unity, so a common Lord makes for a kind of political unity. Paul can therefore describe the Ephesians as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Fellow citizens belong to a common nation.
Different denominational traditions make this political unity visible differently. Connectionalist churches put it into practice through presbyteries and bishoprics. As a congregationalist, I find the metaphor of an “embassy” useful here because this Christian “nation” is actually spread throughout the nations of the world, and every individual Christian should be accountable to his or her own embassy. But whichever polity we adopt, we can all agree that churches at least invisibly share a kind of political or national unity together because of our one King.
Practical implication 1: All Christians should care about how our churches are structured, since polity makes this political unity visible. And polity is how Christians are made effectively accountable to our common Lord. Polity is the tool that disciplines us for righteousness.
Practical implication 2: Like a nation, our names and reputations are all bound together, even when we belong to different denominations. Do you know how obnoxious Americans overseas have given rise to the concept of the “ugly American”? In the same way, when one Christian church presents a poor witness in the city, every Christian church in that city suffers. When one church presents a positive witness, every church benefits. We therefore share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare.
Practical implication 3: Since we share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare, we should pray for one another, encourage one another, financially support one another as opportunity allows, and generally do what we can to support one another’s ministries. This in turn means there should be an openness to informal relationships with other churches, particularly between church leaders. Having knowledgeable relationships facilitates more specific prayer, encouragement, and aid.
WE SHARE THE SAME CONFESSION
Different Christian churches also share the same gospel confession, even when they belong to different denominations. Think of how Paul exhorted “the churches of Galatia”: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:2, 9).
John, too, expected every church to embrace a right doctrine of the incarnation (1 John 4:1-3).
Practical implication 4: Churches should partner in learning from one another and teaching one another. If you and I believe in the same truth, might we not both possess some insight to help one another understand that truth better? I listed several examples above of how the earliest churches did this in the sharing of preachers and missionaries.
In our day, there are lots of ways this can be done: through attending or hosting conferences; through supporting seminary education; through working to equip other church leaders with biblical understanding in a host of ways, from writing books to starting a local ministerial association (to supporting 9Marks!).
Practical implication 5: Churches should work to learn from other churches from across time. The great creeds have something to teach us, as do the various controversies of the past. My church often recites a historic creed on Sunday morning.
Generally, pastors should teach their people to be readers and to be thoughtful. And churches should generally care more about history than we might expect from the population at large.
Practical implication 6: Churches should encourage one another to conform to the same pattern of life, just as the apostolic churches imitated one another (1 Thess. 1:7; 2:4; 2 Thess. 1:4). Paul, sure enough, sought to “remind [the Corinthian church] of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:7); and he often insisted on a common rule “in all the churches” (1 Cor. 14:33b-34; also, 7:17, 11:16, etc.).
This implication, too, points to the value of multi-church conferences, books, or ministerial associations. But it particularly highlights the need for pastors to build relationships with one another beyond their own churches, as they seek to grow in wisdom in the nitty-gritty areas of pastoral practice. How do you deal with this tough pastoral counseling situation? I hope you have a pastor friend or two to call, or even a group with whom to discuss it.
Practical implication 7: Churches should work to supply capable pastors or at least supply-preachers to struggling churches who lack them. I know of a number of churches who, when they work to plant or revitalize another church, agree to pay the pastor’s salary in that other church for the first couple of years. And they do so without asking to exercise any authority over that other congregation! It is a gift.
WE SHARE THE SAME COMMISSION
Different churches also share the same calling and commission. All of them are “called to be saints” or holy-ones (1 Cor. 1:2). All of them are commissioned to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-19). All of them are tasked with guarding the name and reputation of Christ through church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-20).
Practical implication 8: Churches should help one another with membership and discipline. As a congregationalist, I do not believe one church can exercise authority over another. But I have watched our church work well together with other congregations in the transfer of members, as well as in the exercise of discipline. For instance, when one individual whom our church had disciplined tried to join a nearby church with whom we have a relationship, that church turned to us for guidance. Our church has done the same when individuals who were disciplined by other congregations tried to join our church. Our church does not believe that it is bound by the other church’s decision, but we would be foolish not to make enquiries. Working together in matters of membership and discipline helps us make and oversee Christ’s disciples and so fulfill the Great Commission.
Practical implication 9: Churches should work together in missions and evangelism. This can happen locally, as when our church partners with nearby churches (from different denominations) to lead evangelistic Bible studies at lunchtime in the business district. Or it can happen nationally and globally, as when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention pool their money to send missionaries overseas.
Practical implication 10: Churches can partner together in their mercy ministry work. Paul’s example of collecting from a number of churches to support the church in Jerusalem, as mentioned above, provides the most obvious biblical example. Churches today also do well to look for ways to support sister churches with fewer resources at their disposal. This helps Christ’s kingdom and serves the Great Commission.
Cooperating in, compiling, and coordinating resources for mercy ministry among non-Christian neighbors can also help churches fulfill the Great Commission and live as holy ones who are salt and light in the world.
It was not until 2:15 in the morning of December 18, 1944, that the orders came for the 422 and 423 regiments of 106th Division of the U. S. Army to retreat westward toward St. Vith, Belgium from their position in the German forests of Schnee Eifel. By then it was too late. The German Army had successfully executed a pincer movement, surrounding and cutting off the two American regiments. By the next day over 7000 American soldiers found themselves as German prisoners of war.
Now imagine an army regiment trying to do their work alone, without relating to other regiments or the larger division or battalion. It would be foolish.
The army analogy breaks down insofar as the division or battalion command belongs to Christ in heaven. But whether or not you are a congregationalist or a connectionalist, it should be clear that the work of our churches depends upon other churches, like one regiment depending upon another.
How can your church practically support the work of other local churches?
(Click here for “A Church and Churches: Independence.”)
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serves as the editorial director at 9Marks and is the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. You can follow him on Twitter.
What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider how different churches should integrate together. Here we want to ask what makes each independent.
We can answer that by asking what makes our relationship with fellow church members different from our relationship with Christians who belong to different churches. The biblical call to love, pray for, give to, imitate, perhaps even instruct and rebuke other Christians is hardly restricted to the members of our own church. So what makes the relationship different?
DISCIPLINE AND WHO HOLDS THE KEYS
The short-cut answer is to say that your fellow church members can participate in your excommunication in a way that other Christians cannot. An unresolved offense must be taken to the church (Matt. 18:15-17). The independence of the local church, we might therefore surmise, has something to do with the fact that the local church is where church discipline happens.
But there is a bigger picture here pertaining to who holds the keys of the kingdom, and it’s worth taking the longer route to catch all the scenery.
The theological champions at the Westminster Assembly spent several days debating who in the post-apostolic age holds the keys that Jesus originally gave to Peter (Matt. 16:19), since they understood that the keys represent, at the very least, the power of excommunication. And the power of excommunication is the highest authority in a church, just as the power of the sword is the highest authority in a nation. All power in a nation derives from the authority to end a life, and, in the same way, all power in the church derives from the authority to remove someone from membership, including the authority to receive members, pick pastors, or adopt a statement of faith. Whoever has the power of excommunication has the power to do those other things, or at least to decide who does.
The majority of Presbyterians at the Assembly argued that presbyteries hold the keys. The few Congregationalists present—the “dissenting brethren”—argued that the keys are held by the whole congregation together with the elders. (Thanks to Hunter Powell for the history lesson.)
Staring down at Matthew 18:15-20, I would argue with the dissenters that Jesus places the keys squarely in the hands of the local church—wherever two or three are formally gathered in his name. In Jesus’ narrative of discipline, the ekklesia—the assembly—provides the last court of appeal when a person’s profession does not match his or her life.
Later in the New Testament, we learn that elders should be set apart for teaching and oversight, which suggests they ordinarily lead the church in using those keys. I would even say the church needs the elders to responsibly wield the keys. But finally the keys belong to the entire congregation. No text in the New Testament explicitly links the oversight of the elders with the keys of the kingdom in the manner that Matthew 18 so clearly links the keys with the whole assembly. Elder authority is real, but it is a different kind of authority than congregational authority.
Whether or not you are convinced every member jointly holds the keys together, or just the elders of a church do, what should be clear is that no outside body, whether a presbytery or bishop, intervenes in Matthew 18. The local church alone holds the keys.
The independence of the local church, in short, rests squarely on the fact that it is the local church who holds the keys of the kingdom.
THE KEYS AND THE THINGS OF HEAVEN
So what exactly are these keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing? I have argued elsewhere that the keys represent the authority to build the church on earth on Jesus’ behalf by declaring what and who belong to the kingdom of heaven—what is a right confession of the gospel, and who is a right confessor. Certainly, preaching is highly related to the exercise of the keys, and could even be said to form an implicit part of their exercise. But, strictly speaking, I would argue that the exercise of the keys is the pronouncing of a judgment. It is a legal or judicial binding or loosing. It is a church’s decision about what constitutes a right confession and who is a true confessor.
In other words, the keys are put into practice whenever
- a church decides upon a confession of faith that will bind all church members,
- a church admits a member,
- a church excludes a member.
The holder of the keys—the church—is being called upon to assess a person’s life and profession of faith and then to make a heavenly sanctioned and public pronouncement affirming or denying the person’s citizenship in the kingdom and inclusion in the church.
The supreme example of this is Jesus’ interchange with Peter: Jesus asked who they thought he was, Peter made a confession, and then Jesus affirmed both the confession and Peter (“flesh and blood did not reveal this to you…you are Peter, and on this rock…”). The same kind of conversation transpires in Matthew 18, only in reverse. Jesus’ envisions a situation in which a church gradually determined that the what of a gospel confession does not match the who of a gospel confessor.
What all this means is, each local church is independent from every other church on earth because Christ has given each assembly the authority to declare before the nations the what and the who of the things of heaven.
The local church is not a building. It is not the place where you go once a week to get your spiritual jolt. It’s where heaven comes to earth, and the truths of heaven are spoken, and things of heaven get handled, and the people of heaven find life and fellowship. Our churches are embassies of heaven’s rule scattered across the nations of the earth now.
What does all this mean practically?
A CHURCH AFFIRMS WHO REPRESENTS CHRIST
An embassy is a useful metaphor for a local church because an embassy does not make someone a citizen, it affirms someone as a citizen. It stamps the passport when it expires.
An embassy, moreover, makes the rule of one nation visible inside of another nation. You can see the building, the flag, the passports, the ambassadorial staff, the soldiers with guns standing at the embassy gates. Plus, the authority of an embassy is, in a sense, independent within a host nation.
In the same way, the independent authority of the local church makes the rule of Christ’s kingdom visible on planet earth as it exercises the keys, which it does through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The ordinances are what make the receiving and dismissing of members by the authority of the keys visible. Call them Christian passports.
To baptize someone is to identify them by name with the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To give someone the Lord’s Supper is to affirm their membership in the body of our Lord.
Practical implication 1: The ordinances should be practiced in the context of the gathered assembly. If the gathered assembly holds the keys, and if the keys are exercised through the ordinances, then the ordinances should be practiced in the context of the assembly. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not private mystical experiences in which we shut our eyes and feel Jesus’ special presence. They are corporate and public proclamations of identification and belonging. Together we declare that God’s name is upon us (Matt. 28:19); together we declare our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-2); together we declare his death and our membership in his body (1 Cor. 11:18-19, 27-33). The ordinances are not for Christian families, youth camps, or even small groups. They are assembly activities.
Practical implication 2: Baptism is ordinarily into membership. With the exception of settings in which a local church does not yet exist (e.g. the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8), it is irresponsible (and unbiblical) to baptize an individual—thereby affirming his profession of faith before the nations—and then leave him unaccounted for within a local body. Who will ensure that he remains faithful to his profession? How will this baptismally-affirmed professor be excommunicated if he is not within a church?
Practical implication 3: Christians should belong to local churches. Christians do not have the authority to declare themselves Jesus’ representatives. The church has this authority, which it ordinarily exercises by dispensing the Lord’s Supper to its members. (Which is not to say that church cannot provide the Lord’s Supper to visiting members of other churches for the sake of acknowledging the wider body of Christ.) Plus, maintaining the credibility of one’s profession of faith requires a believer to remain under the oversight of a church.
Practical implication 4: Churches should examine those whom they receive as members, and maintain oversight for the sake of meaningful discipline. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked of Peter. In churches today, too, the elders should interview all prospective candidates for membership. Plus, a church should work hard to make sure it can give an account for the spiritual welfare of every member.
Practical implication 5: Discipleship works best in the framework of accountability, which means discipleship works best in the context of the local assembly. We grow as believers through formative and corrective church discipline—teaching and correction.
A CHURCH AFFIRMS A RIGHT CONFESSION
The independence of the local church is also found in the fact that King Jesus has authorized each local assembly to affirm the faith that believers should confess.
Other bodies in church history have written confessions or creeds that are then used to bind churches and what members believe—from the apostolically unique council in Jerusalem in Acts to the council of Nicaea to the Westminster Assembly. But biblically, the legitimate body in a post-apostolic age for exercising the keys in this confession-prescribing fashion is the local church.
Practical implication 6: Churches gather around right preaching of the Word. It is as the church sits under the preaching of the Word and gospel that they learn to exercise the keys responsibly—assessing both the who and the what of the gospel.
Practical implication 7: Churches should establish a clear statement of faith. The very thing which unites a church to all other churches—its confession of gospel faith—also makes each church independent. Since the gathered assembly has been given the keys, every member of the gathered assembly is responsible to affirm a single statement of faith, a responsibility that fits comfortably with the priesthood of all believers. In fact, it’s this act of corporately affirming a statement of faith (through the ordinances) whereby a group of Christians constitute themselves as a local church.
On the flip side, the fact that a statement of faith in the gospel is what unites a church to every other Christian church suggests that it is wise to employ historical creeds or confessions in its official statement of faith. We must independently affirm a statement, but it should be a statement that is (or at least could be) broadly shared by Christians throughout the ages.
Practical implication 8: Churches should choose their pastors. In Galatians 1, Paul rebukes the “churches of Galatia” for abandoning the gospel. He does not address the elders or pastors, he addresses the congregations themselves. They are finally responsible for ensuring that right doctrine is preached, which, by implication, suggests that the assembly should have final say in affirming who the teachers of the Word are.
A CHURCH ADMINISTERS THE GREAT COMMISSION
Finally, the independence of the local church is found in the fact that King Jesus has commissioned each local assembly to fulfill the great commission and to equip its saints for this task. Of course this does not mean that a church does this apart from cooperating with other churches, but the local church is the primary location where the work of the Great Commission gets done, and which has the independent authority to administer this work through the ordinances.
Practical implication 9: Church membership should be treated as an office. It is a job. It is not a casual connection with a voluntary society like a country club, where you come for the benefits so long as the dues are not too high. It is citizenship, and citizenship is an office of governance. Once a church has affirmed an individual as a Jesus Representative and a member, that member becomes responsible for overseeing other confessors of the faith.
Picture a person’s passport getting stamped at an embassy desk, and then walking around to the other side the desk in order to take part in the work of the embassy. In other words, part of fulfilling the Great Commission for an individual Christian is to take responsibility for other church members, that the keys might be exercised responsibly.
Yes, you, Christian, are jointly responsible for every other church member in the room on Sunday morning, and whether or not they continue to walk in the faith. So get to know them! It is as we accept this formal responsibility for the who and the what of other disciples that we ourselves grow as disciples and help others to grow.
In short, responsibility and authority belong together, just like a custodian with the responsibility of cleaning a building must possess the authority of the building keys in order to open all the doors. Christ gives every Christian the responsibility to make disciples in Matthew 28. Wonderfully, he had already given every Christian the joint authority to fulfill this responsibility by giving the whole assembly the keys back in chapters 16 and 18.
Practical implication 10: A church’s basic work is to equip the saints to do the work of this office. It is true that conferences and books and Christian friends can be wonderfully used to equip Christians for the work of ministry. But the local church and its officers will be uniquely called to account for such work (Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:17).
Churches should work together to fulfill the great commission because they call upon the same Lord and share a common gospel confession. This is the argument of the companion article.
At the same time, the fact that Christ has placed the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the whole assembly means that every church has an independent authority to exercise the authority of Christ in the what of gospel confessions and the who of making disciples.
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serves as the editorial director at 9Marks and is the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus.
A wee-little sheep breaks through a fence and runs away. But unlike most parables, his shepherd doesn’t find him (Luke 15:1-7). This little sheep wanders to and fro, far away from home, and eventually stumbles upon another flock. From that moment on, another shepherd is given charge over his life. Imagine the first shepherd picking up his cell phone and saying to the new overseer, “Hey, friend. There are a few things you should know about this wee-little sheep…”
I have no idea whether shepherds use cell phones while wandering across lush plains, but consider this point: shepherds should cooperate with other shepherds, churches with other churches, in order to wisely love the sheep entrusted to their care.
In our very mobile society, where people rarely stay put for long, you shouldn’t be surprised when a Christian stumbles through your church’s front door carrying baggage full of junk from his past. In caring for the hurting sheep, a pastor can go it alone, with nothing but what the new member tells him, or he can informally cooperate with another pastor to better care for this sheep.
CHURCHES COOPERATING: EXAMPLES
Let’s think about a couple of real-life examples.
A struggling member moves to another church. In many ways, this is the simplest and most straightforward example. A Christian who is struggling relocates to another city or state because of a job. He starts going to another church. The pastor knows there is a long history of problems, so he calls this sheep’s previous pastor to get some background and advice.
Mediation between family members. Parents are not getting along with their adult children. The parents and the kids are members of different churches. Pastor Bob is getting one side of the story from the adult kids; Pastor Jim is getting the other side from the parents. Both pastors can persist in their one-sidedness, or they can take the simple step of picking up the phone and calling one another. The pastors act as mediators between family members, with either one or both pastors involved.
A husband and wife separate. A husband and his wife are in a difficult marriage, and things are not going well. For whatever reason, one spouse separates, which often means physically moving out of the home. He or she starts going to another church, maybe in a different city or even a different state. You can choose to deal with just the one spouse in your congregation, or you can extend a hand to the other spouse, inviting them to re-engage in the marriage. His or her new pastor wants to help, and his newness to the issues makes him a little green. Both pastors talk in order to make sure they are on the same page about how to handle the marriage and move it toward reconciliation.
An adult child strays from the faith. A mother and father in your church are burdened for their agnostic adult son. He enters a crisis, and begins searching for answers, but he lives nowhere near his parents. The parents—or often their pastor—call a pastor-friend who lives and works near the adult child. “Can you do a hospital visit?” “Can you meet up with him and talk to him while he is struggling?” “Can you invite him to church?” This seems like a good opportunity to help a non-Christian who is not doing well. Maybe this is an opportunity to help him see God in the midst of his suffering?
A single woman grows interested in a man she meets online. Guy meets girl on-line through a dating service. She doesn’t know if his story is legitimate or not, but she sure hopes so, because she desperately wants to be married. She’s vulnerable, and her pastor knows that. Online dating services provide an opportunity to create a persona which may or may not match up with the real world. The guy says he belongs to First Baptist in the neighboring town. Her pastor calls his fellow pastor in order to protect his sheep: is this guy the real deal or is he faking it?
These are just a few of the many examples of informal, gospel-minded cooperation between churches. Shepherds talk to one another—as long as they have good cell-phone plans.
SIX PRINCIPLES FOR STICKY SITUATIONS
How do we navigate sticky situations like these? Six principles can help guide us.
1. A pastor should know his sheep and lovingly shepherd them through life’s challenges (John 10:14-18; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Are your leadership meetings more about maintaining church programs than shepherding hurting souls? Are you more concerned with putting on a good Sunday show than knowing your flock personally? If so, and another pastor calls you for shepherding help, he won’t get very far. He’ll ask you about someone in your church and you might see that person’s name on a list, but you’ll have nothing to say. Pastors should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who not only knew his sheep, but was willing to lay down his life for them.
2. There needs to be like-mindedness about the gospel and other core doctrines (1 Cor. 15:3). Without a high view of Scripture and a keen focus on the gospel, ministry philosophies will be fundamentally different, which makes cooperation much harder. If the other church cares more about paying the bills or meeting felt needs or granting a divorce than they do about salvation, eternal hope, and the centrality of Christ in all things, then cooperating together just won’t work.
3. Here is yet another reason to promote church membership. Imagine a Christian landscape in which nearly all Christians had been taught and understood that being a Christian meant being a church member. This sort of cooperation between churches would be a lot easier. But to the extent that Christians float around as free agents, never committing anywhere, the examples cited above become more unrealistic. Keep encouraging everyone who walks through your doors to join a church, whether yours or someone else’s.
4. The church leaders need to trust each other (Acts 15:36-41). It goes without saying that if the leaders don’t respect one other, not much can be done together.
5. Use relational resources wisely. Weak sheep tend to over-consume relational resources without much consideration for the other sheep. They demand time. They tax pastors. They burn people out. Pastors should wisely coordinate time, energy, and effort. If Pastor Bob is talking with Jeannie this week, Pastor Jim doesn’t need to talk with her, too. There are plenty of other hurting people who need a few minutes of the pastor’s attention.
6. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate (Prov. 25:11). If multiple churches and multiple people are involved, miscommunication and assumptions can quickly wreak havoc with the process. So communication, though time-consuming, is essential to facilitating reconciliation. Imagine a husband and wife who are separated and attending different churches. In helping them, I typically have regular talks with another pastor, a counselor, the husband, and the wife. And if they are ready, I’ll also do couples counseling.
7. The weaker sheep are indispensible (1 Cor. 12:22). As hard as it sometimes is to bear with Christians who are weak, immature, and struggling with life, the apostle Paul reminds us that the weaker parts of the body are indispensible. This is a good reminder to every pastor to endure in the very hard work of caring for God’s sheep.
SHARE THE WORK
Several months ago I was helping a couple in a troubled marriage, and the wife’s new pastor (from another church) called me. He said, “I’d really like to know how your elder board is thinking about this situation.” The pastor worked at a Bible-believing congregation in another state.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I want to make sure my counseling falls in line with how your elders want to exercise oversight over this marriage.”
Wow. I’ve been pastoring for a while, but I’ve never had a pastor from another church make a statement like this. It was clear that this man gets cooperation. And as I came to find out, he was also gracious and gospel-minded. If your church believes the same gospel as other churches, that should encourage this kind of friendly and informal cooperation.
Pastor, think about a difficult situation that you are shepherding right now. What steps could you take to cooperate with another gospel-minded church that might help both you and those you are shepherding?
Deepak Reju is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He has a PhD in biblical counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Pastor, I understand your reluctance to talk about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I really do. It's a topic that can make enemies instead of friends--certainly enemies outside the church, but possibly inside, too. And who wants enemies?
Why the Arguments for Gay Marriage Are Persuasive, by Kevin DeYoung
The Yuck Factor, by Carl Trueman
It’s a standard trope: The young seminarian takes his first pastorate. He’s loaded for bear, brimming with theological conviction, eager to love the people. He’s ready to meet the devil on the battlefield. His first year’s sermons are planned. He’s dreaming big, praying hard, and ready to go.
And then he meets it: Torpor. Indifference. Spiritual laziness.
In his vibrant memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson reflects on this. In its early days, his church plant drew “A few seasoned saints who kn[e]w how to pray and listen and endure,” but also “a considerable number of people who pretty much just showed up” (128). They were “the lukewarm,” and there were many of them.
In such a situation, facing spiritual lethargy in a congregation, what should a pastor do?
DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM
First, he should think carefully, and not reflexively, about factors that may be contributing to this sorry situation. Here are a few of the biggest.
Culture of Low Expectations
Many 9Marks readers are familiar with what happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American evangelicalism. For various reasons, many churches shifted to a more pragmatic, business-friendly, consumer-attuned model. This model was good at attraction; it was not as good at engagement.
Guess what? If you treat people as consumers, that’s how they will act. If you recruit them as spectators, that’s what they will be. That’s where a good number of American churchgoers are today.
Weak Church Membership
Following closely from the previous point, many folks in the mid-to-late twentieth century did, in point of fact, join churches. The postwar evangelical boom—chronicled in Grant Wacker’s forthcoming biography of Billy Graham and seminal works like Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1997)—led to huge increases in church attendance and membership in the 1950s. But the aforementioned church culture meant that many people were not trained to view their congregational allegiance as meaningful or, dare I say it, costly.
In a good number of communities, you joined the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary, the Junior League, and a church. It wasn’t that church participation was an empty ritual; a good number of folks were genuinely converted in this period. But many church members weren’t trained to think of the church as the “true culture,” as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, but rather as a part of the broader culture.
Natural Human Sinfulness
The previous two points are what we could call “legacy problems.” These are realities that have shaped many of the existing churches pastors enter today. But there are also less cultural and more native problems that incline church folk to passivity and laziness.
Our modern evangelical movement, particularly the grace-loving wing (of which I am an enthusiastic part), has a tendency to take a biblical text, perhaps one anchored in God’s mercy but with some sharp edges, and to blend it all together. To make a gospel smoothie of it.
To be sure, we should read all Scripture with theological lenses, and with Christ at the center. But if we’re not in tune with the actual tone and style of the biblical authors (and not a footloose-and-fancy-free pastiche of their material), passages like Titus 1:10-16 can sound harsh to our modern ears:
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
Paul knew the glories of grace firsthand, yet he powerfully indicted the culture of laziness in Crete. He didn’t hold back. He made it clear that there were tendencies in this region toward idleness. He also made it clear that laziness and failure to pursue the Lord wholeheartedly and to engage the mission of God are shameful sins. These behaviors are also dangerous, because idle passivity leaves people susceptible to false teaching, particularly teaching oriented to selfish gain.
Unseen Factors: Discouragement, Pain, Need for Investment
Spiritual idleness is a sin. That’s our starting point for addressing it. Beyond this truth, though, what are some possible problems getting in the way of meaningful church involvement?
- A harsh or overbearing leadership culture might have singed fragile members.
- The unbiblical models of church life mentioned above may have genuinely convinced people they are supposed to be low-energy at church. And if people are low-energy at church, they’re not likely to bring a godly boldness to other areas of life.
- Some folks may have a desire to engage the work of the gospel in the local church, but may have no idea where to start. They need mentoring and discipling. At many churches, if you polled church members on how many had been invested in personally by a church leader at any point in their membership—some for decades—I bet the resulting negative response would stun many of us.
- In a similar way, some people need encouragement. They genuinely (and mistakenly) don’t think they can serve the church.
- Some folks come from traditions that rightly respect church leadership but wrongly obscure the “priesthood of all believers.” They think that only the clergy can serve the Lord.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
We’ve sketched a few of the major reasons why people in the church are idle and passive. Now let’s look at a few ways that we can address these problems.
Preach the Word
Your first duty as a pastor is to declare the Word of God. God’s Word brought life to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 37); the Scripture is still, all these years later, bringing life to dry bones today, including the weary, the fearful, and the idle. Declare the whole counsel of God. Mediate biblical reality to the people. As you do so, over time, the Spirit of God will convict and awaken the lazy.
With Clarity and Compassion, Indict the Sinful
In regard to the idle, further, you must not shy away from imperatives. The teachings of Christ and Paul will suffice to show that it is entirely possible to preach from a grace-saturated perspective, against the backdrop of a massively powerful God, and yet bore into the particular sins and struggles of our human nature. Your preaching should accomplish these aims: it should show the idle how great and powerful God’s grace is, make clear how dishonoring idleness is in light of the kindness of God, and lead them to repent of their passivity and practically overcome their sin.
Your exhortations should be strong, though self-aware. Consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thess. 3:7-10)
Be like Paul: Call sins what they are. Identify idleness. In a spirit of courageous compassion, rebuke it.
Alongside your call for repentance, cast a grand vision of the Christian life and the church’s work. Too many churches labor under either an unarticulated mission or a small one. Not every church will be large in number, but every church is an outpost of the kingdom, a participant in the most dynamic work there is on earth, the preaching of the gospel of Christ. Every congregation goes to war against Satan, the defeated tempter of the sheep. Every believer offers acceptable service to the Lord through the Spirit in service of this great cause (1 Pet. 2:9).
Idle believers first need to repent, and then get gloriously lost in the work of the kingdom.
Lovingly Shepherd the Sheep
In addition, you’ll need to make this practical. Many of us shy away from programmatic membership which reduces everything to a sign-up sheet and a start time, but many church members will need help getting plugged into the church’s ministry. Many will not have the vision (at least initially) to figure out a course of action. This is why elders who actually know the people are so essential. It is not enough to preach against idleness and to trumpet the mission of God. The elders of the church must dig in and help people overcome their sin and struggles. This is a complex matter—really the heart of shepherding—but suffice it to say that the church’s elders must dig in, meet with members, listen to their stories, call out sin in their lives, and map out a plan for overcoming their challenges.
In the course of doing so, you will find numerous people who are walking through a unique season of life that taxes them and leaves them with little time to plug in spiritually. They may come to you feeling lazy, and it may be your call to gently help them see that they’re not lazy, just overtaxed. A doctoral student living the fever dream of the final dissertation phase; the young mother waking four times a night to feed a newborn; the construction worker pulling double shifts for a season to make the mortgage; in these and other seasons, the church can easily extend grace to the burdened. D. A. Carson—no spiritual slouch—has quoted Lloyd-Jones on the need to relieve young mothers of guilt in this area. I fully agree.
Ideally, pastoral shepherding will form long-term strategies by which to transition the overworked out of their hyper-busy state. Busyness is an easy sin for a modern people to excuse. Nonetheless, strong shepherding will distinguish between unusual seasons and spiritual lethargy, and apply gospel grace—and gospel power—to the situation.
It will also discern how to engage those who lack confidence in their ability to serve, and gently lead them to areas of need in the body which they can begin to address.
Live it Out
The people also need you to live out your exhortations. If you light a fire in the pulpit but fail to carry that fire into the week, your people will see that. They won’t know all the doctrine you know, but they will know a worker. You’ve got to show them that the work of the kingdom, the preaching of the gospel and its application to fallen lives, really matters to you, and that it drives your life.
To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, you need to preach costly grace, and you need to show just how it costs you.
Pray for Change
Prayer must permeate all the work of the church. This is true for your care for the idle: you must pray for them, and ask God to change them and motivate them by the riches of his gospel. Pray when you’re encouraged by what you see; and pray when no encouragement is in sight, and you feel alone and weak like Gideon before the Midianites (Judges 7). There is no substitute for prayer. God answers it, and is often pleased to show his power not through our Unstoppable Plans for Personal Change, but through the mysterious power of his Spirit.
Trust a Great God to Act
In all of this, remember: it is not you, ultimately, who builds the church and awakens the idle. It is Almighty God. He loves your people far more than you do. He is all-powerful. He is working through you as you preach his Word. And he will reward the long-suffering, long-praying pastor who seeks by the power of God to awaken the sheep to the mission of God.
Owen Strachan is Assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013) and, with Kevin Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Brazos Press, 2014).
As a pastor, I fight the temptation to act as if I can be everywhere, fix anything, and know everything. Such sinful assumptions are spiritually detrimental for any pastor, not to mention his church. We are human, and we will never fully magnify God without confessing that we are not him.
Zack Eswine understands this thoroughly. Thus, in his book, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, he reminds us that “the Christian life and ministry are an apprenticeship with Jesus toward recovering our humanity and, through his Spirit, helping our neighbor do the same” (20-21).
EXPOSING AND ADDRESSING THE MINISTER’S TEMPTATIONS
Sensing Jesus is divided into two parts. First, Eswine exposes the minister’s temptation to try to be God: omnipresent (everywhere-for-all), omnipotent (fix-it-all), and omniscient (know-it-all). Second, he addresses the solution to these temptations, namely, the restoration of our humanity in Christ.
Exposing our Temptations
As pastors and ministers we want to be great. We envision doing great things for Jesus. We want to be great preachers, extraordinary counselors, outstanding writers, and remarkable shepherds. Simply put, we want to be exceptional in every way. However, if there is anything we must remember about pastors and ministers, it is that we are first and foremost exceptionally broken.
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Something is wrong with pastoral ministry—at least Dave Earley thinks so. Introducing his book Pastoral Leadership Is, he laments that in the Western world we have “adopted an unbiblical model on pastoral leadership, that is killing our churches and harming our people” (1). Pastors have become “chaplains.” In truth, God has called them to be “spiritual warriors, missional leaders, and multiplying mentors.” The situation is dire, but the solution is at hand. We must return to “what the Bible says about pastoral leadership” (2).
BACK TO THE BIBLE
The book divides into five parts that collectively form an understanding of the pastorate. Pastoral ministry is “being a man of God,” “praying with power,” “teaching the word of God,” “equipping and leading others,” and “shepherding God’s flock.” These five major divisions are further subdivided into six smaller chapters apiece, which explore the larger theme in detail.
Easley makes good on his promise to plant our noses in the Bible. Scriptural references are copious throughout, and the ministries of Moses, Jesus and Paul—understood as paradigmatic for pastors—are prominent. These ministries involved three central responsibilities: prayer, the ministry of the Word, and equipping others to serve. These tasks are the essence of pastoral work. They are tasks which “every effective shepherd simply must do” (12).
At the same time, Easley does not overlook the character of the pastor: “Personal integrity and godly character are the foundations for authentic, God-blessed pastoral leadership.” (28).
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Seven years ago Christianity Today magazine asked John Stott to assess the growth of the evangelical church. This was his reply:
The answer is “growth without depth.” None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.
Sadly, seven years on, that assessment still rings true. Although our growth has been wide as the ocean, it’s often about as deep as a puddle. Why is that? What is going wrong? Over the coming months, I’m going to suggest five reasons we don’t disciple—or at least don’t disciple well.
But first, what is the biblical rationale for discipling? There are many, but the key passage is Matthew 28:18-20:
Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you...”
Now the question is, does this command (“go and make disciples...”) apply only to the eleven disciples Jesus was speaking to? Or does it apply to every Christian disciple?
Sometimes translations give the impression that “go” is the emphasis of the command—which is how the verse came to be the catalyst for the modern missionary movement. But the main verb of the sentence is “make disciples.” One commentator puts it like this: “Jesus’ commission here is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”
D. A. Carson draws the same conclusion:
...the injunction is given at least to the Eleven, but to the Eleven in their own role as disciples. Therefore they are paradigms for all disciples...It is binding on all Jesus’ disciples to make others what they themselves are—disciples of Jesus Christ.
Which brings me to a troubling question. If the Lord Jesus himself has commanded every Christian to “make disciples,” why isn’t everyone doing it? What is keeping our churches from being thriving communities of disciple-makers?
Let me suggest five reasons—one now, and four to follow in future columns.
WHY DON’T WE DISCIPLE? BECAUSE WE PREACH CHEAP GRACE
You’ll remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian. He defined cheap grace like this:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 43-44)
When the gospel is preached in your local church, what do your people hear? Do they hear, “Of course you’ve sinned. But now everything is forgiven. Jesus paid the price for your sin. So everything’s taken care of.”
That’s okay as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that this gospel contains no demand for discipleship. There’s no requirement for repentance. No holding out for holiness. Isn’t that at odds with Jesus’ insistence in Mark 8:34? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
As the old truism goes, grace may be free—but it isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And it will cost us our lives too, if we want to follow him. The invitation may be extended to all, but only those who obey Jesus’ call—deny yourself and take up your cross—have received it.
And the question is, are we teaching this gospel in our local churches? Does our gospel contain the demand for discipleship? Or do we cough loudly over Mark 8:34, and relegate it to the small print, hoping no one will notice until after they’ve signed on the dotted line? Are we lowering the cost of discipleship in the hope that more will buy?
Another, related question: do we speak of God’s love as “unconditional”? If we do, we unwittingly contribute to the problem of cheap grace. Because in one sense, God’s love isn’t unconditional at all. Listen to what David Powlison says here:
“While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense, it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life.” (God’s Love: Better than Unconditional, 11)
If we fail to teach the “conditionality” of God’s love, we’ll serve up cheap grace. Grace that requires no radical obedience, only a sleepy nod. Grace that cannot stir, only sedate.
The gospel is not conditional (“If you obey me, I will love you”). But neither is it unconditional (“I love you regardless of whether you obey me.”). The gospel is contra-conditional (“I love you even though you haven’t obeyed me, because my Son did.”). And the obedience of the Son on our behalf moves us to love and obey. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15).
My fear is that in our evangelistic desire to get “decisions” from people, we may have rendered many of those “decisions” meaningless. It is one thing to “pray the prayer,” another thing entirely to repent and believe. It is much easier to tread the sawdust trail than to walk the Calvary road.
HOW CAN WE MAKE GRACE “MORE EXPENSIVE”?
So what should we do (if I can put it this way) to make grace more expensive?
First, when we preach the gospel, it is tempting to preach only the identity and mission of Christ (“Jesus is the Son of God and he died for sinners like you.”). But we must also preach his call: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).
Let none of our congregation be in any doubt: a Christian demonstrates that fact by denying self and taking up their cross. That means that in our gospel preaching, we must not forget the way Jesus himself preached the gospel. He called people to repent as well as believe (Mark 1:15). The two are inseparable. We must never drive a wedge between them in our preaching, as if “belief” is necessary to make someone a Christian, and then “repentance” is an optional extra for the really keen Christians. Neither are negotiable.
Second, when people ask us how they know they are truly in Christ, let’s not point to a prayer prayed, or an aisle walked. The biblical grounds for assurance is our continuing walk along the Calvary road, bearing the cross of shame, and also bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8).
Cheap grace may be easier to “buy.” It may help our churches to fill. But we will watch them fill with people who aren’t disciples, don’t particularly want to be, and therefore have no desire to disciple others. We will have created a culture where discipleship is essentially irrelevant.
Next time, I’ll suggest a second reason we don’t disciple.
Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.
Click here for part two of this series.
When people pursue faith in an unbiblical way, false converts are made, and the world is misled about what it means to follow Jesus. Pastors, therefore, need to keep an eye out for false faith, that they might separate the false from the true:
1. True faith is not deedless, but shows itself in deeds.
James asks what kind of faith is saving by asking about faith’s relationship to deeds. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). According to this passage, knowing the truth is not enough. It is possible to know about the truth, and be deceived. So mere knowledge does not equate to a real saving faith. Rather, true faith shows itself in deeds.
2. It is not faith in yourself, but in God.
Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll see bestselling Christian books with self-help advice. Westerners today love talk of the God within. Yet we cannot save ourselves: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). Following ourselves and believing in ourselves will not result in eternal life, but eternal death.
3. It is not faith in heritage, but in Christ.
Growing up in a Christian home is not what saves you. Having grandparents who are saved is not what saves you. If anyone had reason to place their faith in heritage it was Paul—“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews,” and on and on he goes (Phil. 3:4-11). But all this is rubbish, he concludes—our heritage does not save us. Christ does.
4. It is not faith in faith, but in Christ’s completed work.
Much so-called Christian TV and radio programming today panders to what peoples' "itching ears" want to hear: the promise of earthly gain. Over and over again we hear the testimonies of businessmen who "turned on to Jesus" and saw their businesses double. “If you don’t have these things,” people are told, “it’s because you are not believing hard enough. So believe harder!” Notice two problems here: stuff (not Christ) is the end, and looking inward (instead of outward at Christ) is the means. Sadly, people take their eyes off of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and put them on themselves. But true faith does not look to itself, it looks to Christ, his work on the cross, a sacrifice that we know God accepted because he raised him from the dead.
5. It does not fail to repent, but changes direction.
Apart from repentance, faith is not real and it is not saving. There are many people who say they believe in Jesus, but nothing has changed in their lives. They refuse to renounce the old way of living. Repentance is not just feeling sorry for sin. Anyone can feel bad about sin. True repentance begins with sorrow, seeks forgiveness, and then culminates in a change of direction. A person turns around and starts walking the other way.
Real saving faith is repentance and trust in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God.
It is full reliance on Christ. He is the object.
It is the way of surrender, and evidences itself as real by the authentic crop it produces.
Ross Sawyers is lead pastor at 121 Community Church in Grapevine, TX.