What I Can and Cannot Live With as a Pastor


Okay, if you’re particularly interested in reading this because you want an answer to the question implicit in the title, you’re the exact kind of person for whom this kind of article might be really dangerous. You might be looking a little too hard for a man-made rulebook. Proceed with caution.

Speaking personally, I probably wouldn’t turn to an article for an answer to the title’s question. Rather, I would turn to trusted counselors who knew me and the situation in which I pastor. Abstract principles need to be tested by Scripture, and even true ones can be badly misapplied.

Let me give you an example. Christian churches should practice church discipline. True. And Christian churches are in sin if they tolerate unrepentant sin. True. As a pastor, I should not lead my church into sin. True.

Okay, suppose I discuss all these matters with a brother-pastor and feel confident that we’re on the same page about them. But now, imagine this. What if a few weeks later, I get a call from this pastor telling me that he had been fired?

“Fired?! Why?” I ask incredulously. “I thought they liked you!”

“They did,” he responds. “But after our conversation the other day, I felt convicted that I should lead my congregation to practice church discipline so as not to tolerate sin.”

“Yes,” I prod, “so?”

“So,” he replies, “when the former senior pastor’s daughter has been known for some time to not be attending (though still a member) and even living with her boyfriend, I suggested at a deacons’ meeting that we do something about it. The next thing you know . . .”  I interrupt, “No need to go on, I can guess much of the rest of the story.”

Something can be true, yet we can decide as pastors that our congregations are not ready to act tomorrow in a way they might be ready to act in a year. Jesus himself declined to answer all the questions the disciples put to him, for the reason that they could not yet bear some truths.

I’m not suggesting that you be deceptive, but simply that you explain things to your congregation as they are ready to hear them.

So, given that long warning, what things can I and can’t I live with as a pastor? Let me throw out a bunch of different examples that are relevant to my particular situation: organs, female elders, universalism, altar calls, humor, multi-site campuses, drums, the KJV, stained glass, racism, infant baptism, no formal membership, sermons limited to 10 minutes, large and high pulpits, TV studio-like acoustics. My goal in what follows is not to give you a sacrosanct playbook, but to illustrate how I go about thinking through practical matters. Let’s take each one in order.

1. Organs. I can live with an organ. I can live without an organ. I can even live with an organ that’s too loud. But I don’t want to! Organs are not in the Bible. Congregational singing is. Any accompaniment which smothers and thereby discourages congregational singing should be reformed or eliminated. Given the financial and emotional commitments that are represented in organs, movement for change here should be slow.

2. Female elders. I might be able to live with female elders, but not for long, and probably not at all, so I probably just shouldn’t try. I want to allow for those situations in which you’ve had an ill-taught church that’s willing to follow your leadership, where even the female elders themselves are happy to step down. But normally, if a church accepts female elders, has been clearly instructed to the contrary, and will not change, that seems like a battle you won’t win. So I probably wouldn’t even begin with such a church.

3. Universalism. I cannot put up with a church which teaches that Christ died as a substitute in the same way for everyone so that everyone will be saved. The Bible doesn’t teach that. That undermines the gospel. Unless they would repent immediately, I wouldn’t even begin with such a “church.”

4. Altar calls. I can live with altar calls. This is a longer conversation, but you must first realize how your congregation views them. If they are lightly invested in them, you can probably remove them fairly soon and easily. If they are the emotional highpoint of the service, then you probably need to spend some time changing the language you use about them, and then, over time, educate the congregation that Jesus called people to repent of their sins and to trust in him. The physical motion to which he called them was not walking down an aisle but taking up the cross.

5. Humor. I can live with some diversity on humor. Surely, some kinds of humor would always be out of bounds (e.g., obscene, impure, crude). Other forms of humor and the quantity of humor are more a matter for wisdom. And I can imagine some variety between congregations here. But even here I would want to work for as much agreement in understanding and practice within a church as possible.

6. Multi-site campuses. I can live with multi-site campuses. But only if they are a temporary measure while the congregation builds a larger meeting space, or where the two sites are a segue to an independent church plant. Otherwise, I cannot live with them, and, praying God’s prosperity on the now two churches and their ministry, I would move on. (I think the church is one assembly).

7. Drums. I can live with drums. Like organs, if they are overpowering and actually discourage congregational singing, then I would prefer not to live with them for long. No instrument should discourage the biblical practice of congregational singing. But here, as in so many other places, teach before you act, and certainly before you call the congregation to act.

8. The King James Version of the Bible. I can live with the KJV. It is beautifully done. But there’s no need to use it. As people have done throughout the history of translating the Bible, churches should be okay with using a version which translates the languages that were contemporary for Moses and John into language that is contemporary for us today.

9. Stained glass. I can live with stained glass, stone buildings, cross-shaped narthexes and wooden pews. In fact, all of the traditional European style churchy architecture has both pros and cons. You should never assume your building is necessary for the mission that God has given your congregation, but neither will an aspect of the building normally prohibit you from fulfilling that mission.

10. Racism. I cannot live with racism. It is infinitely more offensive to God (who made everyone in his image) than it is even to our increasingly racially sensitive age. Assuming that we all participate in some amount of unintentional racism, studying and preaching Scripture with an eye to this will help us and those who hear us.

11. Infant baptism. I cannot live with infant baptism. Having said that, if I were the pastor of the only church allowed in Mecca, maybe . . . But even then, I simply lack the authority to admit someone to the Lord’s Table who has not been baptized. It is, as one said not too long ago, “above my pay-grade.” I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.

12. No formal membership. I can live with this. But, depending on the situation, not for long! In this fallen world, sin and error will arise within the church, which means that we must know who has the final authority for acting against sin and error. Since the New Testament teaches that the congregation has this final say (see Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2; Gal. 1) I have to know who belongs to the congregation. Too, the members need to know of their own obligations, responsibilities, and privileges. There may be cultural reasons why a church in a non-transient, small community in which Christians are a minority could effectively operate with only an informal membership. But except for these very particular circumstances, Scripture and practice mandate that we have a clear membership in order to function biblically as a church.

13. Sermons limited to 10 minutes. I can live with this. For a while. Though it would be an ill sign of that congregation’s health. Or telling about the previous pastor’s ministry. I would certainly like to see the church’s appreciation of and desire for God’s preached Word to grow.

14. Large and high pulpits. Though off-putting to some, I can live with this. It symbolizes the centrality of the Word in our life together.

15. TV-studio-like acoustics. I can live with acoustics which increase the sound from the front (a.k.a. “stage”) and muffle the sound of the congregation (a.k.a. “audience”), but I don’t want to! Everything this communicates about the assembly is wrong. But this is how they build church auditoriums in these highly amplified days. Natural light is gone! Video projection is in! ARGH!! A living community of people loudly singing and hearing each other is one of the greatest means of edification on this side of eternity. Come to think of it, it’s so good that, unlike the video clip, it keeps being used over on the other side as well!

This is just a little taste of those things that I can and cannot live with as a pastor. Questions of Calvinism, open-air preaching, drama, dress, prophecy, politics, having an American flag on the platform, and myriads of other matters need prayerful and wise consideration by the pastor.

Again, my goal here is not to convince you to adopt all of my conclusions (though I’m happy to push you to think about it). It’s to help you begin thinking about the matters which arise in your situation according to several criteria. What criteria? Here are three questions we as pastors should always ask.

First, is the matter biblical? I can live with practices that are commanded or exampled in the New Testament church. I’ll start asking hard questions about practices that are not. You and I will give an account to God for how we led our church. Shouldn’t humility impel us simply to stick with his playbook? Congregational singing shows up in his playbook. Easy call to make. Things that hinder congregational singing. Hmmm. You might want to think twice.

Second, does the matter deny or confuse the gospel? I cannot live with things that explicitly deny the gospel, things that threaten the gospel, or things that blur it. Admittedly, it’s not always clear how big of a threat something is to the gospel. Most people don’t think polity is something that’s relevant to the gospel. I do. My point right now isn’t to convince you on this particular matter, so much as to suggest what everyone’s standard might be for what they can and cannot live with: draw your line in between things that bring shame on the name and message of Jesus Christ and things that do not.

Third, is the congregation ready? That is, are they mature enough to follow where you lead? If not, you may only do more damage by quickly “leading” in that direction. Truly leading an immature congregation might mean moving very, very slowly. How many young pastors, feeling convicted of conscience to “lead” immediately, do in fact fail to lead because they don’t first take the time to understand and love the ones they mean to lead!

Every answer in real life is more complicated than a few sentences an article can communicate. I pray God will use this article to help you begin some important conversations with some more experienced pastors who know you, your situation, and the Bible.

Mark Dever

​Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and the President of 9Marks.

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