Mailbag #65: Distinctly Calvinist Statement of Faith? . . . When An Elder Isn’t “Apt to Teach”

Mailbag
10.20.2017

What should a church include in its Statement of Faith? For example, should a SoF be explicitly Calvinistic? »
How should a church handle a situation when it’s been determined an elder isn’t “apt to teach”? »

Dear 9Marks,

Recently our church has been accused of drawing doctrinal distinctives in our statement of faith that are too tight (or unnecessary). These accusations have been made about doctrines such as the sovereignty of God in salvation and effectual calling. Could you provide some insight on drawing doctrinal distinctives? What are some scriptural directives that inform a person about what is important to include/exclude in a statement of faith? How would you respond to someone asking you to take sovereign choice and effectual calling out of your Statement of Faith?

—Caleb, Ontario

Dear Caleb,

Generally speaking, I would say a good statement of faith should contain two types of doctrines: doctrines that are essential to salvation and doctrines that protect the way of salvation. The former includes gospel basics like an affirmation that the Bible is God’s Word, the Trinity, the fallenness of humankind, justification, the promise of Christ’s return, and a few other things. The latter includes doctrines like inerrancy, the church, the ordinances, and I’d even say the basics of gender and marriage.

Now, I know I just picked like 14 fights with that last paragraph, but hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying: you want gospel doctrines and a few crucial gospel-protecting doctrines. My own church’s statement of faith includes both kinds.

Okay, what then about God’s sovereign election and effectual calling, specifically? I admit those are tough. Good folks will disagree with what I’m about to say, but my own view is that these two matters both are a part of the gospel, but that, strictly speaking, believing in them is not necessary for salvation. Part of the good news is that God saved us by his own sovereign will, effectually calling each of us. Yes. But . . . I’m willing to affirm that friends of mine who deny effectual calling are still Christians.

Do you see the challenge here? For that reason, I very much like the tradition of statements that affirm God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in a fashion that both Reformed and non-Reformed Christians are able to sign it. You see this in my church’s statement (the New Hampshire Confession) as well as the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Here’s how the BF&M does it: “Election is the gracious purpose of God. . . . It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end.” Both the Reformed and the non-Reformed can affirm that, and I think that’s a charitable way forward.

Bottom line: I would want to make sure my statement of faith doesn’t exclude everyone who is not a thoroughgoing five-point Calvinist. To put it positively, I think our churches should have space for both the Reformed and non-Reformed.

Hope that helps.

*For more conversation on this topic, listen to this Pastors’ Talk episode: “On the Conscience & Christian Freedom.

Dear 9Marks,

If, according to the biblical criteria, it is determined that a current elder is not “able to teach,” is 9Marks able to offer any practical wisdom on how to navigate that situation?

—Steve

Dear Steve,

You say “it is determined” that said elder cannot teach. My first question is, who has determined this? Just you? All the other elders? Do most people in the church share your view? Why was he made an elder in the first place? (I assume you simply inherited him?)

In other words, are you sure you’re right? Or is it possible that your view of “able to teach” is too high?

Let’s suppose you’re right, and that this brother really cannot teach. What then? Well, what I would do depends on why or in what sense he’s unable to teach. I think one of the primary things Paul had in mind with “able to teach” is the soundness of a man’s doctrine. If you tell me that this man is unable to teach because he has bad doctrine, my sense of urgency will escalate. I will probably look for ways to remove him from being an elder quickly. If, however, you’re telling me that his doctrine is fine, but that he’s not a good communicator, then, still, I may encourage him to step down, but I will tackle that matter more slowly. It’s possible, however, I would simply wait until his term expires, assuming your church has those.

In other words, is he doing harm to the sheep? Or is he just ineffective? The answer to that is crucial. If he’s doing harm, I’m going to become much more willing to act decisively, even if it means spending pastoral capital. If he’s not doing harm, but is just ineffective, I’m going to more carefully consider what kind of pastoral capital has to be spent. In the latter case, it may be that you do more damage to the church by encouraging him to step down, in which case you should slow up and pray that God would provide a resolution. Relatedly, how many other elders do you have? If he’s one of three, that’s one thing. If he’s one of 14, that’s another.

Whether he’s doing harm or he’s simply ineffective, obviously you start with lots of prayer. Then you might have a one-on-one conversation with him. Start with questions, but eventually you will need to raise your concerns. Also, somewhere along the way you’ll need to speak with your fellow elders or leaders. Make sure you’re seeing eye to eye with them both about the nature of the problem and about what needs to be done. If you’re the only one to see the problem, then go back to step one: are you sure you’re right?

My last question(s): what sort of natural mechanisms for removal are in your church’s constitution? Are there term limits? Will he be stepping down soon anyway—or is he appointed for life? The answer to that will affect how quickly and decisively to act.

To sum up, I’d want to second-guess my own opinion by talking to fellow leaders. I’d want to consider whether he’s harmful or just ineffective. I’d want to think about how much pastoral capital I have to spend and think through the affects on the flock whether he stays or goes. I’d want to consider what’s going to happen naturally if I do nothing for now. At the end of the day, though, you probably need to have a tough conversation or two.