Mailbag #63: How to Love Wayward Children; Is Plural Eldership Required or Encouraged?

Mailbag
10.06.2017

How should parents treat their 18-year-old daughter’s relationship with her girlfriend? How do we love them without condoning their sin? »
Should all churches have a plurality of elders, or are there some churches that simply cannot have a plurality of elders? »

Dear 9Marks,

The daughter of one of our church families has begun dating a woman. The daughter is 18 years old, attends college, and lives at home. Her parents are asking me, “Should we allow our daughter and her girlfriend into our house? Should we invite them over for dinner, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas? Should we include them in our family pictures?” They want to love her, but not to condone the lifestyle and relationship.

They’ve heard Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony and are struck by how the pastor loved Rosaria and her girlfriend, had them over for dinner, developed a meaningful friendship, and so forth. They wonder, “Should we take that approach?”

—Ernie

Dear Ernie,

Good question. I forwarded it to Rosaria to hear what she thinks. Here’s her reply:

Great to hear from you, Jonathan!

Pastor Ken and his dear wife Floy did not have a meaningful relationship with my lesbian partner. Rather, Ken and Floy did have a meaningful friendship with others in my lesbian community, including a transgender friend who came to church with me (while in transition). Also, Pastor Ken was not my dad. I do call him dad today (and he walked me down the aisle when I married Kent), but Ken still had greater liberty in this situation than the dad in question here. Here is my advice to the Dad:

1) Don’t alienate your daughter or her partner by fussing over small things. Invite the partner to Thanksgiving dinner and to Saturday night movie night. Treat her like an image bearer of a holy God. Keep that in the forefront. Your guiding verse for this is Genesis 1:27. Genesis 1:27 helps you navigate social interaction. Birthday parties are fine to celebrate. Weddings are not. Keep your elders and pastors in the loop—at least weekly. Submit to them and to their advice.

2) Don’t talk to your daughter as if she is on your side. She is not. She has left—at least for a season. Don’t appeal to her 10-year-old self. She finds this demeaning and insulting. Deal with her right where she is. Say less. Pray more. Your guiding verse for this is Ephesians 4:29. Whatever comes out of your mouth must give grace to the hearer. Don’t say too much. You are now a missionary in this relationship and you don’t know the language well. Listen. Pray. Serve. Don’t let your guard down.

3) Watch your social media conduct—or get off of this altogether. Don’t get rattled by your daughter’s postings. This is all Satan throwing sand in your eyes. Your daughter may have left you for a season, but she is still a prayed-for child.

4) Pray that the Lord would put a wedge of difficulty in this lesbian relationship. Pray that the women would start to despise each other. Be careful to not alienate your daughter so that they organize their allegiance to each other by taking aim at you. Give them no material to solidify their relationship to prove you wrong. This is key.

5) How you navigate the social dynamic (Thanksgiving, etc.) is vital. We need to think of our home more in terms of a family of God and less in terms of a family of Kent Butterfield or Jonathan Leeman or anyone else. I just finished writing a book about this (The Gospel Comes with a House Key), so the subject goes deep for me. I know this sounds really radical—and it is. Jesus dined with sinners without sinning with sinners, and we really don’t seem to grasp how to do this without erasing sinners from our life.

I hope this helps. I will be praying for this family, and for the Lord to rescue all of his wandering sheep.

Your sister in Christ,
Rosaria

Dear 9Marks,

1. Let’s say Mark Dever retires and moves to my state and wants to join our church. Should we put him through the same membership process as you would any other person? What if Tom Schreiner moved to DC and wanted to join CHBC—would you put him through the same membership process? Those two men have a well-known public presence and a track record that is easily found, so I wonder if they should be treated differently. Or, what if instead of a well-known Christian leader it was a pastor that was hired at the state association level (SBC) for a job. Should they be subject to the same membership process? Or do we simply conclude that if the state association people thought he was good enough for them then he is good enough for admittance as a member?

2. Should all churches have plurality of elders, or are there some churches that simply cannot have a plurality of elders? Can you ever say some churches just can’t do elders, or is it a biblical mandate that churches cannot ignore?

—Zeek

Dear Zeek,

So you’re trying to sneak two questions into one mailbag email. Nice. I think I can answer both somewhat efficiently.

To question one: yes, yes, yes, no. Examine Mark, examine Tom, examine the state association employee, don’t employ another standard. First, Jesus makes every church responsible to protect the gospel (Matt. 18:18–20; 1 Cor. 5; etc.). When someone joins your church, your church must affirm his or her profession of faith with its own mouth, not someone else’s mouth. You must exercise the authority Christ has given you. Going through the motions, even with someone you know and trust, teaches your church good things about every believer’s joint responsibility together. Second, to do otherwise strikes me as a wrong kind of partiality, at least as implied by James 2:1–7.

To question two: sort of, kind of, sort of, basically. Make sense? Let me start over. Nowhere does the New Testament command churches to have more than one pastor. Therefore, I don’t think that a man who begins pastoring a church as the solo pastor has suddenly placed himself in a state of sin. He’s not directly disobeying a biblical command, as he would be, say, by refusing to baptize people. That command is clear (see Matt. 28:19). On the other hand, the Holy Spirit does give us a uniform pattern. Every time actual church elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the biblical author uses the plural, as in,

“he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him” (Eph. 20:17)

or

“Let him call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14).

By this token, I believe pastors should aspire to raise up other pastors or elders. The plural pattern establishes a discipleship trajectory. In fact, I’d even say churches who don’t establish a plurality of elders, or who try to keep their elder boards small, generally undermine their discipleship ministry in ways they may not recognize.

In other words, Zeek, I’m making an ethical distinction between must and should. Must means you must do something, or you’re sinning. Should means it’s ordinarily wise and preferable to aspire in a certain direction, using judgment and discretion in your circumstances to determine the best time to take a certain step. These distinctions aren’t airtight, but I think they’re sufficient for now.

If you don’t think you have qualified men, don’t move forward. If you think moving forward will split the church, don’t move forward. If you have qualified men and the strong majority of the church will affirm these men, then move forward.

I pray all this helps.