On Sunday morning, August 19, 2001, I began corporate worship at First Baptist Church (FBC) Durham by calling on the members of the church to repent. The church had just elected a woman deacon for the first time in its history, and deacons in our church’s polity were treated as spiritual leaders with shepherding responsibility for the flock. I had been teaching the congregation that Scripture reserves spiritual leadership to men, and I had made private efforts to forestall this result. Still, the church voted in a woman as an authoritative spiritual leader.
So I began worship by calling on all the people of FBC to repent—including myself. In the spirit of Daniel 9, I felt that all of us must take responsibility for violating God’s clear guidance.
My call was an object of horror to many of the members of the church. They were outraged. In their minds, repentance was something you do at the beginning of the Christian life and then never need to do again. For them, it was as if I were saying, “Because you voted for a woman as a deacon, you are not Christians.”
But I didn’t believe that at all. Rather, I know that because of the power of indwelling sin described so clearly in Romans 7, a healthy Christian life is one of constant conviction over sin and repentance from that sin.
A church that stops reforming is dead. And as dangerous and uncomfortable as church reformation can be, the far greater danger is not reforming. FBC was a church very much in need of reform.
CHURCH REFORM REQUIRES SUFFERING
My personal journey with FBC’s road of reformation began in August of 1998. I remember kneeling before the Lord in my office at Southern Seminary where I was finishing off my PhD dissertation. The pastoral search committee at FBC had called on me to come and preach to the church in view of a call to be their senior pastor. I needed to know the will of the Lord in this, whether or not he was calling on me to serve in that way. James 1:5 promises that if we lack wisdom, we should go to God and he will give it. So I knelt and prayed and sought the will of the Lord: “Lord, do you want me to go there and preach that sermon? And if they accept me, do you want me to serve you there?” During that prayer time, I had an unmistakable sense of the Lord’s pleasure in this, that it was his will for me to go. That sense of a clear calling from God served me well in the future years.
But I had no idea of the suffering that awaited me in this church. Looking at the text more carefully now, I see that the promise of wisdom in James 1:5 seems to be linked to the suffering that God ordains in our lives. James tells us to “consider it pure joy” whenever we face trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance, and that endurance is necessary for God to finish his sanctifying work in us. God seems to be saying, “Seek my wisdom in the midst of your suffering and you will gain perspective.” But if I had known ahead of time what reception awaited me at FBC when I initiated reform, it’s possible that I never would have gone.
Thus, in view of my cowardice, God simply let it be known that I should go. The rest would become clear in God’s own good time!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF OUR CHURCH REFORM
In 1998, FBC Durham was a church in need of reform. It was the oldest congregation in Durham, founded in 1845, and it took pride in being the “First Baptist Church.” In the 1950s to 1970s, it was also the place where everyone who wanted to be anyone in Durham would have attended. By the time I came, those days were over. Yet the memory lingered.
Some godly men had preceded me as pastor and done solid biblical work, laying a good foundation for me in many ways. Best of all, they had left a motivated remnant of godly men and women who were eager to see FBC become a healthy and fruitful church. But these pastors who preceded me had also suffered significant persecution from the same cabal that awaited me. Behind the scenes, these pastors had been threatened, bullied, manipulated, and basically forced out of their ministries.
FBC’s Flawed Church Polity
The church polity in 1998 would have been very familiar to most Southern Baptist pastors. There were five “points of power” whose relationship to each other was unclear:
- A senior pastor led a paid staff of associate pastors who were responsible for various specific ministries (college/career, youth, music).
- A board of deacons was called to “assist the pastor in leading the church to accomplish its mission.” Some godly deacons did precisely that. But others regarded themselves as the true power of the church, especially as they were controlled by a small group of businessmen who saw the church as “their church.” They had been there the longest and had invested the most money.
- Church committees run by these same key deacons controlled various aspects of the church’s life—budget and finance, properties, missions, flowers (our church has an elaborate rose garden whose flowers are used to beautify the sanctuary and to cheer shut-ins), homebound, youth, and so on.
- A church council was comprised of the senior pastor, the chairman of the deacons, and all the chairs of the various committees (including the flower committee). This counsel met monthly and had the right to speak to any issue in the church and to vote on policies that would govern the life of the church.
- The church body, as in any congregational church, was the final human authority, but generally it followed the leadership of a few key people.
This arrangement was especially poisonous for a new young pastor like me because the cabal of older, powerful businessmen who ran the deacons saw it as their responsibility to keep the pastor and the church staff under their thumb, partly by making sure that no pastor stayed at FBC too long. They regarded the senior pastor as a hired employee, and they were his bosses. They saw themselves as forming a needed “check and balance” to the undue exercise of pastoral authority. They had been playing the game for decades before I got there, and knew how to run things to their advantage.
A previous pastor told me about one example which revolved around the church budget. The key leaders of the church gave a significant percentage of the church’s annual income, so they were able to control “how the church was doing financially” to their advantage. Every October, the budget and finance committee would make up the church budget. During September and October, these men would see to it that the giving would start to lag and the church would fall behind in its receipts. Then they would say that, as a result, there could be no raises for the church staff or funding for programs that they were not interested in (like missions or urban outreach). The building and grounds, however, always received whatever money was needed to maintain a lavish and comfortable place to worship. Then, after the budget was voted in, the receipts would start flowing again and the church would comfortably make its annual budget. This game happened every year!
As I prepared to assume the role of senior pastor at FBC, I knew there was a significant flaw in the polity of the church that I would have to address: the issue of gender and authority. In 1988, the church had voted to allow women to be deacons, and, as I mentioned, deacons in this church’s polity functioned like what the Bible calls “elders.” Interestingly, no woman had been recognized as a deacon in the ten ensuing years. But I suspected in 1998 when I arrived that it was just a matter of time before a woman would be nominated. Now I personally believe that 1 Timothy 3:11 allows for women to be deacons, but I also believe that deacons are in no way to “teach or have authority over a man,” as 1 Timothy 2:12 puts it.
My master of divinity degree from the egalitarian Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary had taught me the best arguments for “evangelical feminism,” and I had come to reject them as unbiblical. As I went to Durham to assume the role of senior pastor, I naïvely assumed that the church simply needed to change its by-laws back to the way they were in 1988, and all would be well. In fact, I was entering a spiritual war zone.
The War Begins
Within two years of my arrival, the first woman candidate for deacon loomed on the horizon. I had heard that this woman was interested in being a deacon, so I went to speak to her. I spoke to her in public, amidst people milling around after a worship service, but there was no one who heard our conversation. That was a mistake!
In the conversation, I asked her to refrain from pursuing the office until I had a chance to teach first the deacons and then the church about my convictions on gender and authority. She bristled. And later she would say that I threatened to preach a sermon about her if she didn’t withdraw.
Actually, that was the very thing I never would have done. I wanted to avoid discussing this doctrinal issue over the case of a specific church member’s candidacy. I wanted instead to discuss it from the Bible alone without the reputation of a specific person clouding the conversation. This woman eventually did withdraw later that year, but basically made it clear that she would do whatever she wanted in the future. I had some time to begin teaching on gender and authority, but it was hardly an auspicious beginning. The war had begun.
Teaching the Deacons
My next step was to write a paper entitled “Gender and Authority in the Church” and to present it at a special Saturday session to the whole deacon board. It was one of the worst meetings I’ve ever attended.
It became clear how divided our church was. Some of the deacons truly delighted in the clear teaching of Scripture. Others were aghast and enraged.
I remember the horrible looks on the face of the most powerful leader of the deacons. At one point, I was teaching them that God has prescribed in Scripture how the church should conduct its life together, and along the way I referred to the moment when God struck Uzzah dead for his irreverent act of touching the ark. At that moment, this deacon recoiled in his chair, appalled. He gestured down at the open Bible on the table before him and said, “I could never believe in a God like that!”
The moment crystallized the need for reform at FBC. This man could not believe in the God clearly revealed in the pages of the Bible. What god could he believe in, then? One of his own imagination?
That Saturday morning was an abomination to many of those deacons. They were used to a church that was socially comfortable, a place of barbecues and family gatherings and pleasant messages about the love of God. Some were aggressive in their opposition: “Where does your authority come from to tell a woman she may not run for deacon? Who do you think you are?” Others were more practical: “If we don’t have women deacons, we won’t have enough people to serve as deacons.” And still others were perplexed that there was “fixin’ to be a fight” in the church. They wanted no part of it, right or wrong, and wished I’d just kept my mouth shut.
From that time on, the top priority of the opposition cabal was to get a woman deacon elected, and as soon as possible. For them, it was an issue of power and control in the church. For some feminists, it was an issue of right and wrong. For me, it was a matter of biblical faithfulness. For the church, it was going to be a long and difficult two years.
Teaching the Church
Week after week, I continued to preach expositional sermons from passage after passage and book after book, never mentioning the matter of women deacons from the Sunday morning pulpit. At other times of the week, such as Sunday and Wednesday evenings, I taught on gender and authority. I was always clear that the issue was not about “women deacons,” but about ensuring that our polity matched Scripture, which meant deacons should not be viewed as spiritual leaders in the church.
During this time, the ministry of the Word of God was having a powerful and divisive effect on the church. The genuine saints were being deeply challenged and were growing and flourishing, while the nominal, unregenerate church members were becoming openly hostile.
At the same time, my own poor attitude toward the Word of God was being challenged. I was secretly resentful that biblical faithfulness on the gender and authority question was costing me so much. I began to wish the Word was somehow written differently—that is, until a godly woman in our church came up to me and, not knowing my hidden thoughts, said, “Thank you so much for teaching so clearly what the Bible says about being a woman. It has freed me as never before to be a woman as God wants me to be!”
I was immediately convicted and realized that every passage of Scripture is nothing but good, pure, and healthy food for souls. Pastors never need to be ashamed of anything God has said in his Word, as I had been secretly thinking.
Since then, I have tried to remember that lesson, and have sought to teach the good food of every passage boldly and winsomely. I especially seek to be delighted in the texts that address controversial areas of doctrine: divorce and remarriage, predestination, providence, homosexuality, women’s issues, church discipline, charismatic issues, and so on. God’s Word is perfect and it brings health to individuals and churches. That was the lesson of that night for me as a preacher.
Unbiblical Attitudes Surface
At the height of the difficulties, we had several specially-called prayer meetings. Usually only people sympathetic to the changes would come. But I remember one particular meeting where a woman prayed, “God, help us to learn that we are a modern people and we don’t need to do everything it says in the Bible!” I think every head in the room jerked up to see who had prayed such a thing.
One godly man later said that he felt the need to move his chair away from the woman so that he wouldn’t get hit when God struck her! His wife told him not to worry since God has good aim. This man said, “Yes, but God told everyone to get away from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram because the ground was about to swallow them up!” My only thought at the time was that the woman just might find her prayer included on the “Ten Least Likely Prayers to be Answered” list.
At another time, a woman said to another godly man, “I don’t give a flip what Paul taught about women!” Clearly, the issue had to do with biblical faithfulness.
The First Woman Deacon…and the Next One
The powerful men who opposed me knew how to play politics. Their top priority was to get a woman elected so that I would resign.
Shockingly, though, the first woman who decided to run for deacon had up to that time been a supporter of missions and my ministry. No one could believe that she would actually run in those circumstances, but she did. And she became one of the top seven vote-getters, so she would serve as deacon. She was the first woman ever elected as a deacon at FBC Durham.
On Sunday, August 19, 2001, cards with the results from the deacon election were distributed to the congregation. As I already mentioned, I stood up and called the church to repent. As a side note, a godly family visiting our church that Sunday saw the little blue card with the election results, prompting the man to lean over to his wife and say, “Should we walk out now or later?” But when I called on the church to repent, he decided to stay. Ultimately, they decided to join the church, and they remain fruitful members to this day.
Soon after this first woman’s election, she felt pressure from godly friends in the church and decided to resign. She and her husband then left the church, but not quietly or in love. At a climactic church conference, the husband, who had up to that point been my friend, essentially called me a liar in front of the whole church. He and his wife left the room and the church from that moment. Shortly thereafter, she made some unflattering remarks about me to a local religion reporter which were then printed in the newspaper. All this was happening around 9/11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, which gave a number of editorials and letters to the editor in local newspapers the opportunity to liken me to the Taliban since we both restrict women’s rights for religious reasons.
After she left, the cabal that opposed me saw to it that the next woman deacon took office. According to our by-laws, a vacancy in the deacon board would cause the next highest vote-getter from the previous election to move up and take the resigning person’s place. As it turned out, the original woman whom I had addressed months earlier while milling about after the Sunday service was two back in line. So two dissident deacons then resigned so that this woman could rotate up and serve. She actually did take the office and held it for that year.
The By-Law Change Initiated
From the first time I read FBC's constitution and by-laws, I knew that the church needed to change its by-laws on deacons. So I learned how to change a by-law at FBC, followed the procedure, and wrote a new by-law saying that only men could be nominated, elected, and serve as deacons.
The church vote on this measure was planned for Wednesday evening, October 10, 2001. Two weeks prior to that, I proposed the new by-law in a specially called business meeting, and then called the church to prayerfully consider it for two weeks. The man at the head of the faction which opposed me then yelled, “This is no way to run a church!” and wanted a full discussion and a vote there and then. But our only purpose that evening was to propose the new text.
Psalm 37 Changes Everything
The Sunday before the Wednesday vote was the hardest day of preaching in my almost thirteen years of ministry at FBC. The tension was so thick I could barely catch my breath or walk with a steady step up to preach. I was preaching expositional messages through Romans, and was on Romans 7:1-6. As usual, I sought to keep the pulpit clear of the controversy.
It was not a particularly difficult passage to preach on, but I was preaching to so many hate-filled faces that I found myself clutching the sides of the pulpit to keep upright. I wondered what I had done to engender such hatred, to stimulate such a desire for my own destruction in the hearts of church people.
I barely made it through the sermon, then went home to recuperate for the evening service. I lay down in a hammock out in the backyard and prayed. I had just found out that week that one of the opposing church members was organizing a lawsuit against me. The reason? “Breach of contract,” I had heard. The logic was that, in changing the church’s by-laws which I had known about before coming to the church, I had misrepresented myself to the church. A friend of mine who is a federal judge said that the case was specious, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t have to defend myself legally.
All of this was overwhelmingly pressing on my mind as I lay in the hammock. I felt like I was at the breaking point and couldn’t take much more. That morning, a godly church member had recommended that I read Psalm 37 for encouragement. So that afternoon, I did.
Line after line of this ancient psalm washed over my heart and eased my burdens. I felt as though God himself were speaking those words to me one after the other. The basic point of the psalm is stated right at the beginning:
Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. (Ps. 37:1-3)
This clear message kept coming across in this psalm: Wicked people make plots and schemes against the righteous, but they will fail. In the end, the righteous will inherit the earth, and the wicked will be no more. So do not fret or be anxious; do not worry or be alarmed. Simply stand firm and watch the deliverance that God will bring about. God even comforted me about the potential lawsuit: “The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, seeking their very lives; but the Lord will not leave them in their power or let them be condemned when brought to trial” (Ps. 37:32-33).
One passage especially leaped out: “I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found” (Ps. 37:35-36).
This made such an impression on my heart that I got up out of my hammock, picked up a saw, and cut off a leafy green branch from a tree. As soon as the saw passed through the branch, I knew that the leaves were as good as dead, even though they looked as healthy as they had a moment before. Soon they would wither because they were cut off from the living source. I took that branch with me to work and still have it. The leaves are completely dead now, because I cut that branch almost ten years ago. It represented the end of the era of unregenerate church members dominating the life of FBC.
That time of meditation and prayer over Psalm 37 changed my perspective in less than an hour. I knew immediately what would happen at that climactic Wednesday night vote: The plots and schemes of the powerful men who opposed my by-law change would succeed in the short term, but the church would be healthy in the long term. We would lose the battle, but would win the war.
I went to work as usual on Monday morning, but all the staff saw a noticeable change in my demeanor. I was happy, confident, and excited about what was going to happen long-term at FBC. Andy Winn, our present associate pastor, still speaks about the visible change he saw that morning. Everyone around me relaxed as well, and waited to see what God would do.
As I look back on all this ten years later, I now realize that that time of prayerful meditation on Psalm 37 was the key moment in the entire church reform. It was the turning of the tide. If I had continued to be as depressed as I was, and the vote turned out as it did, I would have almost certainly resigned and taken another pastorate that was being offered to me even then. If that had happened, I wonder if FBC would have been reformed. God could have raised someone else up, but the same battle would still have had to be fought. Psalm 37 was the turning point.
Surviving Our Slaughter at the O.K. Corral
That Wednesday night’s business meeting—our “Shootout at the O.K. Corral”—was a complete rout. Our church’s fellowship hall was packed with people, many of whom I’d never seen in my life. I had been the pastor there for three years, and at least a quarter of the people in the room were total strangers to me. The cabal which wanted to run me out of the church had worked the phone tree and had assembled a large number of non-attending church members to come and vote against this by-law change. The room was raucous and unruly, and the vote wasn’t even close: we lost 172 to 125. I still have the stack of blue cards from that night’s vote in my office.
Resuming Ministry, Waiting on the Lord
The outcome neither surprised nor troubled me. I was in the pulpit the next Sunday and continued my sermon series with the next text in Romans. My opponents fully expected that I would resign the pastorate that morning, but that thought was the furthest thing from my mind. This was Christ’s church; I was called to be an undershepherd; and I was fully convinced he still intended great things for FBC.
Week after week of ordinary preaching followed. We had (for us) a large new member class a month later—eighteen people joined FBC, all of them eager for the Bible to be taught faithfully. The church had decisively turned a corner. We could have had a re-vote on that exact same by-law change and won there and then. The nominal members would not have kept coming back, and the new members were all eager for God’s Word to be established as the rule of the church.
My opponents said I had lied, claiming that I had promised to resign if a woman ever got elected as deacon. However, I never said that. Politically, they had missed their chance to get rid of me. The reformation of FBC was now a certain fact waiting for the validation of a church vote on the by-law change.
The Church Changes Before Our Eyes
That vote happened a year later, in October of 2002. In the meantime, the church had already begun to remove inactive members, fighting a battle with an old vision of church membership that was decidedly unhealthy. Every business meeting in the first two-thirds of 2002 involved a spicy debate about the propriety of removing people who had not asked to be removed. The battle lines were clearly drawn, but reform-minded people always outnumbered those who were fighting the changes. At one point, I said to a fellow church member, “History is made by those who show up!”
By the time October of 2002 rolled around, we were essentially dealing with a new church. Over a hundred new people had joined, and many others had left or been voted out for failing to attend any services of the church.
“Frank Peretti Week” at FBC
In due time, I resubmitted the same by-law to be voted on at the October 2002 business meeting. The week preceding the vote was an astonishing one, with many satanic attacks and bizarre occurrences.
On one of the workdays before the meeting, I was sitting at my desk when I heard a loud bang on a door to my office that visitors never use. I opened the door and beheld a woman whom I'd never seen before who looked to be in her early sixties, dressed neatly in a gray business suit with her gray hair pulled tight in a bun. She briskly introduced herself and said she was a lawyer and a member of the church from the 1960s who had never renounced her membership. She was here to say something important to me. She also produced a handheld tape recorder since I “don’t hear things the way they are said,” and explained that she intended to record her own comments and any I chose to make, though she acknowledged I was under no obligation to speak.
I asked if she would wait a moment, and then went through the usual office door and asked my secretary, Jeremy, to be with us. She then pressed the “Record” button, and recorded her own diatribe about how she was a lawyer who “doesn’t play games” and that she had looked up my own family’s history—including some issues related to my parents’ lives that had nothing to do with FBC. She also stated that I could personally expect legal trouble if I continued with my actions at the church. She told a story about how her own mother had had a stroke and that she then threatened a lawsuit to some doctors if they didn’t give her a drug protocol that was perhaps against their policies. They gave the drugs to her mother, who then made a full and miraculous recovery. The point was that God was on her side, and that she didn’t intend to play games with me.
Neither Jeremy nor I said a single word or made a single sound during this entire speech. She kept the recording going as she walked out of the office and we heard the doors close down the hall. Jeremy looked at me and said “That was satanic!”
That’s how things went that week.
The night of the vote was like something from a Frank Peretti novel. The fellowship hall was loud and boisterous, and this same woman tried to take control of the meeting by yelling “Point of order, Mr. Moderator” over and over. The fact was, there was no proof of her having been a member of FBC for decades, and she was not permitted a voice or a vote at the meeting. But she persisted in making trouble as best she could.
During the meeting, one of our custodians went outside and saw an unknown woman leaning against the wall with both hands and praying. He asked her, “What are you doing?” She answered, “God told me to come pray for this church, so I came.” She had no idea what was going on inside, or any of the history. She was just obeying God and praying for the church!
The vote was roughly a mirror-image of the failed attempt the previous year, but with the opposite result. It was something like 170-120 in favor of following biblical authority.
Soon after that, many people left the church, knowing that they had lost political control and that the church was going in a direction they could not accept. Meanwhile, many other new people came. God had given us a whole new era at FBC.
The Move to Plurality of Elders
That was in 2002. Over the next few years, my own personal influence at FBC rose to a potentially unhealthy level. Many of the people who remained and were strongly active in the church were extremely supportive of me, my preaching, and my leadership. They wanted to do anything they could to bless me and my family. At first, that was very encouraging, and in many ways it still is. But I began to realize that FBC could never reach the heights of biblical fruitfulness with my own gifts and limitations dominating the leadership and direction of the church. Those next few years were characterized by licking wounds, enjoying good worship services, and growing steadily. But I knew a significant change was needed in our polity. At one point, a lay leader in the church said to me, “Andy, you have unparalleled influence in the church...Be careful what you do with it!”
So I traded in that “unparalleled influence” for a new, biblical polity: a plurality of elders. For over a year, a select group of deacons and other lay leaders and I met to craft a new constitution and by-laws with a plurality of elders at the center of the church leadership structure. We then did a great deal of teaching on the topic, and had three different “town meeting” type question and answer sessions with the whole church. We moved very slowly and deliberately, and by the time the third one occurred, it felt like the people were saying, “Enough already! We agree! We are ready to vote.”
When the vote came to change the entire governmental structure of FBC, it was approved at well over ninety percent. Next came votes on approving five individual lay elders, and they were all approved at ninety-five percent or higher. On a shelf in my office, I have the ballots of the elders’ election side by side with the blue ballots from the failed by-law change from 2001. They are tangible reminders to me of the amazing journey of church reform that Christ has worked at FBC.
LESSONS FROM THE REFORM
Here are a few lessons I learned through this reform that might be useful to other men who are reforming churches.
1. Never Forget that Christ Alone Owns the Church
Christ alone owns the church. The church belongs to Jesus Christ, for he alone shed his blood for it (Acts 20:28). No one has a greater stake in the church; no one has a higher claim to its allegiance. No church member or pastor can buy and control the church, for Christ has paid the immeasurably high price of his blood, and he has infinitely outbid the next highest bidder.
Further, no one can pull rank on Jesus based on length of membership. Many of our older members at FBC were accustomed to talking about how many years they had been members. As a result of this boasting, some godly members seemed almost apologetic that they had only been members thirty or forty years, and they knew others had been there far longer. I wondered when someone actually got to be a full member of FBC, as though we were only junior members until we’d outlasted everyone else. At one point, it occurred to me that only Christ had been with FBC for all of its days since its inception in 1845. No one could pull rank on him.
Finally, Christ’s power alone is sufficient to purify the church and protect it from its enemies. Christ is jealous over the church and fierce against those who would harm it (1 Cor. 3:17). Therefore, the centrality of Christ must permeate all church ministry and church reform.
In the midst of church conflicts, it’s easy for pastors to forget Christ in their sermons. And outside of the pulpit it’s easy to speak too much of the divisive issues, too much of troubling personalities, too much on techniques and strategies for winning the battle, and all the while forget to keep the glory of Christ central in everything. Sometimes, returning to a clear proclamation of the majesty of Christ can heal a hurting pastor. Conversely, a pastor who forgets that Christ is all and is in all the church’s business will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Such man-centeredness is the very essence of why the church is needing reformation.
2. Rely On God, Not On Yourself
Self-reliance is such a core tendency of the human heart that the Lord will deal with it all our lives. Even the apostle Paul struggled with this. In 2 Corinthians 1:9 he recounts how the Lord put him in the pressure vice of a bitter trial in order to address this very issue: “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”
The idol of self reliance is a powerful enemy of what God wants to do to reform a church. A pastor has to learn to trust God, to trust in his power, to look away from self-originated resources, and to fall wholly into the kind and all-sufficient arms of Christ. He must stop thinking that church reform finally depends on his clever schemes, his leadership skills, his winsome personality, or his skill at handling the Word of God. Rather, he must speak the truth to his own heart consistently: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1); and “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:7).
In this way alone can a church reformer avoid both pitfalls of self-reliance: despair (when self-reliance fails) and arrogance (when it succeeds).
3. Rely on the Word Alone
If you want to see a church reformed, put all your eggs in this one basket, the faithful teaching and preaching of the Word of God. In a sermon in 1522, Martin Luther made a famous statement about the reformation in Germany:
I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.
This is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Simply put: Do you believe the faithful ministry of the Word of God is sufficient to reform a drifting church, to revive a dying church, to convict a sinning church?
It is a great error to think the Word of God is not enough, and that you need to add some other technique or strategy, or that you have to reproduce some other local church (like ours, for example) to be successful in your setting. But what does the Scripture say? Scripture itself teaches that it is sufficient for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4), and that the proclamation of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), centered on Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-2), is what every church needs.
So, as you are establishing a ministry of reformation, preach books of the Bible in expository fashion. Perhaps begin with a book like 2 Timothy, which focuses on the gospel, or Philippians, which speaks of godly attitudes to suffering.
It may take your church time to embrace solid meat of the Word on issues like predestination, so I would advise you to save Ephesians and Romans for later in your ministry.
But preach the books of the Bible line by line. This will enable you to be far bolder than you ever can be preaching topical sermons. It will also help you to avoid the temptation to gravitate directly to the latest issue or controversy and use the pulpit to address it week after week. It is better by far to give a faithful diet of the Word of God and allow people to see you faithfully handle the text week by week. Then, when a controversial topic arises, they will see it as coming from the text and not from you.
4. Saturate the Church in Prayer
The prophet Samuel puts the priority of prayer in striking terms: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23). As a pastor, this convicts me that neglecting prayer, especially in a work of church reform, is a great sin. Prayer is essential to God’s plan for our salvation, because it puts us in the humbling position of spiritual beggars (Matt. 5:3). Prayer means that we have turned away from relying on our own techniques and are simply trusting in God’s power to reform the church.
There are many commands and examples in Scripture that encourage us to pray. Perhaps the best role model for a church-reforming prayer life is the apostle Paul. Many of his epistles carry clear examples of his prayer life. Don Carson’s excellent book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers, highlights the lessons a pastor in church reform can learn from Paul’s prayers.
The reformation of a local church can never be anything less than fully turning to God—loving him, trusting in him, seeking him, obeying him. This is what we seek, a purely God-centered answer to church reform. And it is pure folly for a pastor to think that that doesn’t begin with him!
5. Avoid Pride Toward Opponents; Reject Gossip and Slander
When it comes to church reform, it is vital that we stay humble. One reason for this is that God has promised to bless the humble and fight against the proud: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5).
In a church reform, it is especially vital that we guard our hearts. It is so easy to feel spiritually superior to those who are opposing us, to feel that we are intrinsically better than they are. It’s easy to feel like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is better than so many others, rather than the tax collector who cries out for mercy because of his sins (Lk. 18:9-14). We need to humble ourselves before God and recognize that there is not a single sin we can see in our opponents that we do not display in some measure ourselves. We need also to deal humbly with others, because “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
We need to be especially careful to avoid gossip and slander against people who have wronged us or are opposing us. Church controversies are so painful and so personal that it becomes easy to seek comfort by surrounding yourself with allies who will agree with you and help you to slice and dice the opponent, or who might find out some dark secret about a person that you can use in the church fight. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts” (Prov. 18:8). But Scripture rejects this approach completely. In Romans 1:29-30, Paul mentions gossip and slander in his list of the sins that characterize the human race.
There are two godly alternatives to gossip: yearning for the repentance of those opposed to God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:25-26), and seeking protection from an enemy whose opposition has reached a flagrant level (2 Tim. 4:14-15).
Sometimes public opposition to the gospel can result in the need for private warnings about those opponents. But be careful! When you’re going through a hard time it is all too easy to seek therapy in gossip and slander.
6. Be Courageous
It is impossible to reform a church without courage. Satan uses human beings in a very intimidating way, and the fear of man is a powerful hindrance to the work of church reform. At every step, we are tempted to wonder, “What will so and so think? What will the deacons do? Will people leave the church if I preach such and such?” We are tempted to shrink back and refrain from teaching the full counsel of God’s Word. Connected with this is fear and anxiety in general: for a pastor, fear of painful attacks in public, and ultimately fear of losing his position and his way of providing for his family. Fear of man dogs the steps of church reform at every turn in the road, and it makes a pastor shrink back from the bold steps needed to reform a church.
Scripture clearly testifies to the danger of fearing man: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe” (Prov. 29:25).
I certainly felt the powerful pull to fear people. The leader of the faction that opposed me was a man with a powerful temper, who more than once became visibly enraged with me. Once when we were riding in a car together and I tried to broach the subject of the growing controversy at church, his driving became erratic and he yelled, “I will fight you every step of the way.” This was no idle boast. He used to sit with his arms crossed and glare at me while I preached. At one point, however, I realized that he would never be pleased with me no matter what I preached. His real problem was with the Lord, not with me. The Lord made it clear to me that I needed to learn to fear him more than I feared any man: “I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth” (Isa. 51:12-13).
7. Fight for Essentials, Not Non-Essentials
It is important not to draw a line in the sand over an issue that doesn’t deserve it. This is particularly a fault of zealous young pastors who yearn to be faithful to God in adverse circumstances, to prove their courage and willingness to suffer, or, perhaps more darkly, to exert their power and authority over any issue in the church.
There is a famous quote that is falsely attributed to Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It actually probably entered church history during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, a war fought over Christian doctrine, and it has been a favorite of peace-lovers and even of liberals who care nothing for doctrine.
I once heard a story about a well-known preacher of the Word whose expository ministry has helped shaped my own. To this day, this man is characterized by boldness and uncompromising clarity in his preaching, but he also tends to admit of no gray areas. Everything is equally true, certain, clear, essential. When he came to his church, that supposedly Augustinian slogan was painted on the side of the church vans; he had them painted over to say, “There are no non-essentials!”
Well, in one sense that famous and godly pastor is right. He is picking up on the certainty and seriousness with which we should embrace every word of God. But not every issue is worth fighting over. First, not all doctrinal issues are of equal weight. Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees on this very issue:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matt. 23:23-24)
Perhaps there are some “gnat” issues and some “camel” issues in church reform; it is wise to discern which is which. Further, Romans 14 speaks of “debatable issues” that Christians should not divide over: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1).
Second, not every church fight is even over doctrine. Many are over pragmatic issues, like finances, or the appearance of the church building, or, for us, the use of projectors and screens in our corporate worship. Many of these issues come down to personal preference and to power. So many churches split over power struggles, not over doctrine.
Save your strength for attacks on the Word of God, and the purity of the church: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8). “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).
8. Be Patient
Church reform is slow work. It requires a great deal of patience. Here’s a key verse: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).That phrase was incredibly important to me as we were going through suffering: “great patience and careful instruction.”
We must give God time to work in people’s hearts. It can take a while for the truth of the Word of God to transform a church. People don’t change easily, new doctrinal concepts don’t take root quickly, and new pastors don’t gain the confidence of their congregations overnight. It is prideful for a young pastor to expect people to get with the program immediately and trust him immediately and follow his leadership immediately. Instead, he should reflect on how long it has taken him to come to these convictions himself, and allow God the time to work similarly in other people’s hearts.
You must know your people, and must not go too fast. Develop a pastor’s heart for your flock and know what they can handle. Jesus and the author of Hebrews both display this kind of patience: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13). “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:11-12).
I think it is for this reason that there are so many agricultural analogies in the New Testament. The progress of the kingdom of God is slow, gradual work and requires great patience. If a farmer plants a seed, and then the next day goes to see how it’s doing, he may be tempted to dig it up because there is no evidence anything is happening. So James 5:7-8 counsels pastors to wait patiently for God to give growth in his own time.
There is a powerful illustration of this from Martin Luther’s experience. Some young, zealous iconoclasts were pulling down statues from the walls of churches and destroying religious art and artifacts that were emblematic of the old order. Luther commanded them to stop, saying, “Take care of the idols of the heart, and the idols on the wall will take care of themselves!”
If you don’t change people’s hearts and minds, they’re just going to put the statues back up on the walls once you’ve left. Preach the word faithfully, and watch as God changed their hearts. But that means patience is essential!
9. Watch Out for Discouragement
One of Satan’s primary weapons against the work of God is discouragement. Satan knows the power of our offensive weaponry: it is the gospel, a mighty force for the salvation of everyone who believes, and he cannot stop it. Satan also knows the power of our defensive weaponry: it is the full armor of God described in Ephesians 6, and he cannot penetrate it. If God’s people, fully arrayed in God’s armor, take the field covered in prayer, preaching God’s mighty gospel, he will lose! So all he can do is hit us with discouragement. This, too often, keeps us off the battlefield, down, dejected, defeated, and discouraged.
Just about every great servant of God faced immense battles with discouragement. Paul certainly did: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair" (2 Cor. 4:8). So did David as recorded many times in Psalms.
Church history is also full of examples of incredibly fruitful men and women of God who were assaulted with discouragement. Martin Luther battled discouragement in his pastoral ministry at Wittenberg and was so dejected about the poor progress of the gospel there that he gave up preaching for fifteen months in 1529-1530.
Or consider Adoniram Judson, the eighteenth-century missionary to Burma. At the funeral of his beloved wife Ann, he said of her, “There lies, enclosed in a coffin, the form of her I so much loved—the wife of my youth, the source and centre of my domestic happiness.” After her death, Judson entered into a deep depression. He avoided his colleagues and drowned himself in work. He built a hut out in the jungle and behind it dug his own grave, spending hours staring into it, contemplating his own demise. He wrote, “God is to me the Great Unknown. I believe in Him, but I find Him not.” Over time, he recovered and was amazingly fruitful for the Lord. But it was a mighty battle.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote a great book on Spiritual Depression, and I think it is a vital resource for any pastor going through the wrenching difficulties of church reformation.
10. Identify and Develop Men as Leaders in the Reformation
This is no mere strategy, but it is the will of God for the leadership of the church. Too many churches have a senior pastor who has to face the brunt of church reform alone. This is one of the reasons why God ordained a plurality of elders.
For us, moving to plural elder leadership required reform. But in the meantime, it was vital for me to surround myself with godly men who could pray with me, hold me accountable, persuade others, speak up at vital church meetings, and stand with me in a visible way.
Christ worked to train twelve apostles. Paul had his men around him and trained them for leadership. So, too, a godly pastor will constantly pour into young men who can do the future work of reform. And it is even better for him to have older, respected men who can share the brunt of church controversy.
I will never forget Mac Woody’s leadership at a key moment. The time had come to present the controversial by-law to the church a second time. We had a group of men meeting to discuss strategy and to pray, and at that meeting we identified the need for someone to make the speech and do the presentation. Mac vigorously stepped forward. He had been a member at FBC for over forty years, and well knew all the faction that opposed us. He was completely unafraid, and when some younger men thought to give him advice, he stated confidently, almost indignantly, “I got this one! Don’t worry about it at all!” In my mind’s eye I saw a venerable lion, roaring confidently, filling the jungle with his power. Mac, Jack Evans, and many other godly men stood with me at key times and brought about the reform at FBC.
Other pastors who are godlier than I am, better preachers than I am, and better prayer warriors than I am, have nevertheless failed in church reform because, through no fault of their own, they had no allies to help shoulder the burden of leadership.
ONE OF THE GREATEST DISPLAYS OF GOD’S GLORY
The reformation of First Baptist Church is one of the greatest displays of God’s glory that I have ever seen in my life. My prayer is that God will use this narrative to effect similar reformation in other churches around the world for his glory.
Andy Davis is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.
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