Mailbag #71: A Pastor and Pre-Conversion Sins . . . Young Children, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper

Mailbag
02.09.2018

To what degree should a man’s past life—perhaps even before his conversion—affect how we consider his qualification for ministry? »
Should young children who have been baptized but left out of church membership be given the Lord’s Supper? »

Dear 9Marks,

You wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post a few weeks ago:

When [a] pastor is exposed, some push the message of forgiveness. “Who of us is without sin?” they might say, drawing from Jesus in John 8. Meanwhile, others object: “But how can we trust this guy?”

I side with the second group.

I agree with the principle you lay out here. But in light of this, how should we think of a pastor or elder candidate’s past life?  Are there just some categories of sin that will continue to disqualify a man from ministry? And how should we think of a man’s life before and after salvation? Does the fact that a man’s sin happened before salvation keep it from disqualifying him? How does Paul’s life of sin before salvation shed light on this? If John Newton was a Baptist and was up for election in your church, would you vote “Yes” for him to be your pastor in light of his past as a captain of a slave ship?”

—Jason

Dear Jason,

Good questions. Take a look at Paul’s qualifications. An overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,[b] sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. And so forth (1 Tim. 3:2–3). What do all of these have in common? They aren’t things you determine with a ruler or a calculator. They aren’t easily checked boxes: “has a seminary degree”; “attended the church for five years.”

Rather, they’re all somewhat subjective and require an assessment. Is he sober-minded? Hospitable? Able to teach? You have to make a yes/no decision, but you have to examine the evidence, consider, discuss, and then render a judgment because the answer will sit somewhere on a spectrum. How hospitable? How able to teach?

I believe this is true even of the qualification “the husband of one wife.” In the original Greek, you probably know, that’s “one-woman man.” The NIV translates it as “faithful to his wife,” which, I think, is the right interpretation.

Furthermore, the ability to make such judgments or assessments about a man’s character will always be contingent on time, place, and any number of circumstances. “Hospitable” in a Nigerian village is slightly different than “hospitable” in New York City. Plus, even in the same place, an empty-nester retiree is capable of a different kind of hospitality than a father with four young children.

Yet in every case, the congregation needs to be able to look at the man and trust that he’s hospitable—to collectively say, “Yes, that’s him, and I want to be hospitable like that.”

A man’s conversion, of course, plays a crucial factor in both assessing his present character and in the congregation’s ability to trust him. Suppose you have two married men, both of whom had a one-night affair 10 years ago. One man says he was a Christian when it happened. The other had a radical conversion shortly after the affair. That single fact in each man’s life, though equivalent in some respects, weighs differently because of the conversion event. And it will impact the congregation differently. All other things being equal, it will be easier to trust the post-affair convert because of what conversion means and does in a person’s life.

As we’re thinking about past sin in general, no, Paul doesn’t offer a quantifiable formula. It always requires a case-by-case judgment. And with each qualification you want to ask, “Is the man characterized by this quality today, such that we can hold him up as an example of Christlikeness in that area? Can we say to the church, ‘Follow him in this area because he follows Christ?’” When it comes to sexual sin in particular, I think a man needs a long track record of faithfulness.

Do some sins permanently disqualify? Possibly, particularly those involving treachery, deceit, sexual promiscuity, and abuse. But again, I’d want to evaluate each on a case-by-case basis.

I hope this helps.

Dear 9Marks,

I’m a new pastor in a church that has a history of baptizing children at very young ages. Additionally, the church allowed these baptized children to partake in communion. We’re getting ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper for the first time since my arrival at the church this Sunday. As we’re preparing to fence the table, we’re having to think about how to approach the families of the children who have been baptized. Several of them would like to have their children partake of the Lord’s Supper, even though they’re not members.

Do you have any wisdom on how the elders can approach that conversation with them?

—Tad

Dear Tad,

Let me offer what I think is biblical, and then what I think is a matter of pastoral judgment. I think it’s biblical to keep membership, baptism, and the Supper together. There are exceptions to that, as when you baptize someone on a frontier setting where no church exists (think of the Ethiopian eunuch). But what’s typical in Scripture is for all three of these things to be tied together. You don’t want to separate them. The ordinances, in fact, are the signs of membership. All three things work together to affirm someone as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and a member of Christ’s body.

So, biblically speaking, I don’t have a category for people who partake of the ordinances on an ongoing basis but aren’t members of any church. They’re partaking of the sign of the new covenant without actually being joined to the people of the new covenant.

To turn to the question of what to do with these particular children is to turn to a matter of judgment. We’re weighing costs and benefits now. For starters, work to make sure you’re on the same page as your other leaders.

More specifically, my suggestion is either to bring the children into membership, or ask the parents to stop giving them the Lord’s Supper. Personally, I would do the latter, assuming they are young children, as you say. Yes, I have seen this done. The parents willingly complied. Everything turned out fine.

And let me be clear: I don’t believe that asking a child to stop receiving the Supper is depriving him of some mystical or spiritual benefit. The only thing he is being deprived of is the same thing he is deprived of by not being a member of the church: a corporate affirmation of his faith (see 1 Cor. 10:17). In other words, if you’re not going to bring him into membership, there’s no additional “spiritual” loss by not giving him the Supper.

Now, suppose the parents go against your counsel and continue to give their child communion. I might bring it up one more time—though, honestly, I’m not sure—but I wouldn’t keep pushing it. I assume they would only do so because they felt compelled by conscience to do so. I assume they would not do this simply as an act of rebellion. And for that reason, pastorally, I’m probably not going to make a big deal of it. I think the more important thing is—over time—to shepherd the whole church toward keeping those three things together, and to stop receiving young children as members.

I pray God gives you wisdom in how you approach the matter.