When Can You Change Your Church? (Part 2 of 4)


In my previous post I argued that, by and large, if you’re not the pastor of your church, you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. And I admitted that there are exceptions, though most of them prove the rule. This post is devoted to the exceptions, since I recognize that many readers will in fact find themselves in exceptional situations.

In my next two posts after this I plan to focus on what you actually can do in most circumstances to change your church, even when you’re not the pastor. But for now, the exceptions.


The first exception is if your church is drifting into serious doctrinal error, like denying the Trinity, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone. If that’s the case, you not only can but must work to change your church.

In Revelation 2, Jesus holds entire local churches accountable for what they did with false teachers (Rev. 2:2, 14, 15, 20, 24). If they threw the false teachers out, Jesus commends them. If they tolerated false teachers, Jesus condemns them.

Ultimately, therefore, it is the responsibility of the local church as a whole to uphold sound doctrine. This means that if your church begins to deny major doctrines, you personally have an obligation to do something about it.

What you do will depend on who’s teaching what, and on the magnitude of the error. Certainly if a pastor is teaching major doctrinal error, he needs to be removed from the pulpit. If other officially recognized church leaders can lead the church to take this action, good. If not, things might get messier, but you’ve still got an obligation to get rid of a teacher who is seriously departing from Scripture.

So if that’s your situation, pray for wisdom. Pray for unity among your church. Pray that truth would outshine error. And prayerfully get to work removing the unfaithful pastor and finding a more faithful one.


So that’s one genuine exception to the idea that you can’t change the church if you’re not the pastor. There’s another one I’ll mention at the end. But first, here are a few scenarios that look like exceptions but aren’t.

1. “Help Wanted”

First, in my previous post I did not at all mean that individual church members cannot contribute in any significant way to the ongoing reformation of a church. Just the opposite is true: church reform has to take root in the entire membership or else it’s not church reform at all.

To get specific, let’s say you’re part of a church that is in the process of being reformed or revitalized. And let’s say you agree with your church’s leaders about the church’s problems and the solutions to be pursued. Can you work to change your church in this situation? Of course! Can you take initiative and spearhead some of the efforts under the direction of the pastor(s)? Of course!

In other words, if a biblical, reform-minded pastor hangs out “Help Wanted” sign, by all means lend a hand.

In this situation, though, you’re not working to change the direction of the church so much as helping pull it in the direction the leaders are already pointing toward. You’re not working against the leaders, but with the leaders. And your work as a church member is absolutely crucial.

2. He Seems Open to Change…

Sometimes pastors seem genuinely open to change. They talk about wanting to go in a new direction. Maybe they’ve acquired a new set of influences, read some new books, discovered a new model. Sometimes, this will lead to concrete change, in which case we’ve skipped up into scenario one.

But sometimes, pastors can desire change, or agree with the theoretical need for change, without actually committing to lead that change. Sometimes pastors will be open to counsel, and will even sweetly, obligingly agree with a member who is pushing in a new direction. But here’s the thing: if a pastor isn’t willing to personally lead change, that change will never stick at the level of the whole church.

If a church is going to change, it’s going to cost the pastor more than anyone. The pastor will have to teach publicly. He’ll have to initiate practical reforms. He’ll have to answer questions. What’s more costly, he’ll have to be willing to take some punches, upset some long-time members, and generally make things a lot harder for himself in order to see the change through.

If a pastor’s not willing to do all that, no church member can make him. If a pastor is not convinced that he must change the direction of the church, you can’t play surrogate conscience for him. If a pastor isn’t willing to go out and lead change, you can’t shove him out there and feed him lines from backstage.

In short, just because a pastor seems open to change doesn’t mean that he—or the church—actually will.

3. Leading from Second Chair

What about if you’re a pastor of a church but not the primary preacher?

First, let me affirm that all of a church’s pastors or elders share together the responsibility to lead and direct the church. This means that if there is a “senior pastor,” he should regularly lose votes among the elders, and he should thank God for giving the church more wisdom than is in him.

Second, though, in most churches there will be one man who does the bulk of the preaching, and who possesses a corresponding amount of informal pastoral authority. And as I said in my previous post, most preaching pastors’ convictions about fundamental matters of ecclesiology and ministry are not wet cement. Further, practically speaking, the “senior pastor” will have to not only agree with any changes you propose, but in some sense spearhead them. So we’re back up to situation two.

The bottom line is, you can’t lead change from second chair. It will sow seeds of division and sour your relationship with your fellow pastor.


Finally, though, there’s at least one more genuine exception that I can see: a leadership vacuum. What I primarily have in mind here is a church that for whatever reason doesn’t have a formally recognized pastor, especially if a pastor recently left.

In the absence of a visible, universally acknowledged leader or leaders, the direction of the church will be well and truly up for grabs. And if there’s a leadership vacuum in the church, then someone will step in and fill it.

Therefore, church members who are qualified to lead and are committed to biblical reform should try, as in chess, to own the middle of the board. They should step into leading roles, gently set new trajectories, build consensus around biblical priorities, ward off unhelpful agendas, and work to call a pastor who will preach and lead faithfully.

We might call this move “church reform from below.” Those situations are rare, and they’re certainly messy. But it’s been done, and when God is pleased to bless the work, the fruit can be stunning.


Whether you’re in one of these exceptional situations or not, I pray God would give you wisdom to discern how best to serve, strengthen, and unify your local church, regardless of how you may or may not be able to change it.

And if you’re in a church that needs to change but you seem powerless to change it, keep tuning in. In my next two posts I’ll try to offer a few practical suggestions about how church members can change just about any church for the better, as well as how to live with what you can’t change.

Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Most recently, he is the author, with Tyler Wittman, of Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022).

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