Mailbag #32: Politics and the Church; What to Do When Elders Disagree on Principle; What Book Should a New Pastor Preach?

Mailbag
03.03.2016

Is there a place for politics in the church? »
What do you do when elders disagree, not on a matter of preference but biblical principle? »
What books of the Bible should a new pastor preach? »

Dear 9Marks,

If a brother in my church has a differing viewpoint politically or he supports a political candidate that goes against the Word of God on most issues, how do I respond? Is there a place for politics in the church? I am not an elder of the church, just a faithful member.

—Kenneth

Dear Kenneth,

The broad answer is, I think you are free to try and persuade your fellow church member of your political convictions, just as you are free try and persuade that fellow member of your views on how to lay kitchen tile or why public school is better than private. Whether we are talking about morally significant or insignificant matters, Christians must learn how to have honest conversations with one another. Life is too precious and weighty not to speak clearly.

But be careful!

Your political calculations about the rightness or wrongness of certain candidate might be wrong. Politics is the realm of co-belligerence and calculated trade-offs, which includes our choice of candidates. So be slow to burden your political claims with a tone of absolute moral certainty. (See also the article I wrote on pastors endorsing political candidates here.)

Even if you’re right, however, I am not convinced that partisan-level differences (unless we’re talking about the Nazi Party) should lead to a break in the body of Christ. Unless you are prepared to prevent people from joining your church who vote for said candidate, and to excommunicate the members who do, make sure that your conversation with this brother or sister affirms the unity that you share in the gospel. Keep the conversation in balanced perspective.

Also, I assume that you’ve learned by now that most arguments don’t change people’s minds. If anything, they harden them in their positions. It’s often better, I think, to ask a few Socratic questions that reveal fissures in their thinking, and then maybe to provide one or two positive affirmations for them to stew over when they walk away, assuming you sense any teachability.

Remember, though, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prov. 10:19). And “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (11:12).

A fellow member and I recently had an email conversation—okay, I admit, it was a debate . . . an email debate about a flat tax versus a progressive tax (I won’t tell you which position I defended). Here’s the voice that kept whispering in my head: “Jonathan, you don’t have to win this argument. You don’t want to spend any capital you have for speaking truth into his life on this topic. Save your capital for those issues that you know, from Scripture, that you’re right.” Now, the flat versus progressive tax might seem a little more distant from Scripture than voting for a candidate who represents reprehensible things. And perhaps it is. Perhaps your fellow member is sinning by voting for a certain candidate. Still, here is one area where your love should cover a multitude of sins.

Yes, yes, you could offer a hundred “But what ifs” in response to my general principles here. And, depending on the specifics of your “what ifs” my answer might veer this way or that. But above all make sure your political conversation is both driven by love and affirms your love. Love always yields the best politics.

Dear 9Marks,

What do you do when elders disagree, and their disagreements are grounded in biblical convictions?

For instance, my fellow elders and I are presently discussing the freedom of women to participate in public services. We are complementarian (only men can teach mixed groups or serve as elders), but now we are asking ourselves, what brand of complementarianism do we believe is biblical? Can women publicly pray in Sunday services? Most of us think they can, but several brothers believe that women should be completely silent in all gathered services (based on 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2).

I am not asking you to wade in on the complementarian question. Rather, I am using this as an illustration to get your counsel on how elders should navigate discussions or make decisions when there is (and probably will remain) strong disagreement, especially when those disagreements root in biblical conviction. I am not talking about disagreeing over matters of doctrine specified in a statement of faith. Rather, I am talking about the more run-of-the-mill decisions elders have to make: this or that ministry practice, or this or that way of dealing with a certain member. Do you have a framework for working through areas of controversy? What do you do when, after your best efforts, you find you have a divided eldership?

Any wisdom appreciated,

—Andrew, United Kingdom 

Dear Andrew,

What a good question. Yes, a tough but somewhat common situation to find yourself in. Several things to say here:

1) A background point: Due to situations like these, I believe it’s prudent to ensure that ALL present elders affirm ALL nominations for future elders before those nominations go public. Elders specialize in the “important but unclear” issues like the one you present. Since that’s the case, every elder needs to be able to trust the godly integrity and competence of every other man sitting at the elder table. If a tough issue like yours (or, say, a tough discipline issue) comes before the elders, and elder Joe stakes out a contrary position to your own, you don’t want a voice in your head whispering, “Why is Joe even in this room?! He’s not qualified!”

The pills I’m about to offer will be much easier to swallow if you have confidence that Joe and every other man at the table should there. In my church, therefore, we give every elder a veto power over every new nomination (it’s the only issue for which this is true).

To answer your question, then . . .

2) Navigate disagreement with lots of prayer, persuasion, and patience. Some issues require an immediate decision. But if it doesn’t, you might take your time. Seldom will a church rise or fall on making a decision “Tonight!” Instead, keep praying for unity and a common understanding. And keep seeking to persuade and opening yourself up to being persuaded. Our elders even write memos for the whole eldership to read. Sometimes a brother won’t go away and change his mind, but the fact that you didn’t force the decision too quickly leaves him feeling respected and better able to support the majority when the majority votes against him.

3) Take a majority vote. When a decision has to be made, you finally have to vote. I don’t see how you can get around that, no matter your polity. Sure enough, presbyteries, general assemblies, international synods, and the college of cardinals all vote. And taking a majority vote means the minority must submit to the majority, including the “senior pastor” if he is in the minority. I remember one occasion in which our elders were considering whether or not to bring a man back into the church after excommunication. Seven voted against, six voted for (including the senior pastor). Ugh. None of us liked being in that position. But if every man in that room has been given oversight by the Holy Spirit, we have no choice but for the six to defer to the seven—unless you want to divide the church over that issue.

4) If a man cannot submit to the majority due to the strength of his biblical convictions and what he perceives as the importance of the issue, he needs to step down as an elder, or maybe even leave the church (peaceably). I know that sounds drastic, but it is the only way a brother can simultaneously (i) uphold the unity of the church and (ii) remain faithful to God’s Word as one understands it. The middle way is untenable: stay, but be a thorn in the elders’ side, thereby promoting disunity.

When the senior pastor of the City Church of San Francisco announced to the congregation in March 2015 that the elders had decided the church would “no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy,” he also announced that two of their elders resigned from the board. Though I assume it was difficult for those two men to do, I trust Jesus will vindicate them on the last day, and not the board as a whole.

5) Teach and cultivate a culture of humble deference to one another. Not all issues are as significant as the one at stake at the City Church in San Francisco. For instance, our elders made a decision recently about which translation we would use for the pew Bible. The brothers who lost the vote then happily submitted to the majority. Most issues are not hills to die on. You have a problem if you think too many are. Instead, it’s a sign of humility and spiritual maturity for a man to be able to submit to other men. I’d even say, if a man cannot submit, he is not ready to lead. When we are considering prospective elders, therefore, we often ask a man, “Will you be able to submit to your fellow elders if we all vote in a different direction than you?” If a man cannot submit to the majority’s decision, he should not be an elder.

6) Consider any situational asymmetries in burdens on the conscience. Not all decisions will burden the conscience of both sides of a disagreement symmetrically. In the situation you present, there is a greater moral risk for the side opposed to women praying because their praying involves the church in doing something these men believe Scripture forbids, while not having women pray just means a missed opportunity. But in other situations, the greater moral risk lies with not doing something. I don’t think this sixth point is decisive. I’m just saying an elder board should be sensitive to that, keeping Romans 14 instructions concerning the weaker brother in mind. There have been one or two times when a very bare majority of our elders decided something, but then almost as quickly a consensus arose that we should wait due to the nature of the moral risk involved and the desire for greater unanimity.

I hope these principles help you with your present dilemma. I don’t know how much conversation and prayer your board has already put into this particular disagreement, but I’d give it a little time, then maybe a little more, and then I’d vote and let the majority opinion carry the day.

Last thing: after a vote is taken among your elders, you must stand united before the church. The minority must not hem and haw and quietly say to members, “Look, those guys are idiots. I’m sorry they’re making you do this!” No way. At that point, everyone should get behind the decision. And spend any time on an elder board, and you’ll find yourself in this position before long!

Dear 9Marks,

What book(s) of the Bible would you recommend for a first-year pastor to preach through as his first expositional sermon series with his church?

—Adam, Pennsylvania 

Dear Adam,

Mark Dever sometimes encourages guys to pick a Gospel, particularly if they are in a revitalizing situation. After all, it’s hard for even nominal Christians to disagree with Jesus. People feel better able to disagree, say, with Paul. Plus it gets everyone’s focus squarely on Jesus, which is never a bad thing at the start of a ministry. Dever also favors Mark’s Gospel since it’s short and action packed.

I also think 1 Peter may be a good book to start with: short, relatively simple, and aimed at younger believers in difficult situations. It has a lot to say about our life together as a church. James is good, too; it’s so plain and down to earth.

If you do go to Paul, Galatians is worth considering since it’s so clear on justification by faith alone, as well as on the kind of life which issues from sola fide.

Finally, picking 3 to 6 Psalms is not a bad way to begin. Each one can be preached in self-contained fashion. And they always allow you to exalt God and call his people to do the same.

But goodness gracious, what a wealth of riches you have to choose from, no?

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.