Mailbag #78: Can a Church Require Too Many Meetings? . . . Should the Church be Involved in a Pastor’s Decision to Leave? . . . Reformed Theology in the Church’s Teaching Ministry

Mailbag
03.22.2019

Can a church require too many meetings of its members? »
How involved should a congregation be in a pastor’s decision to leave his church? »
How specific should our teaching ministry be with regard to reformed theology? How much agreement do the elders need on this issue? »

Dear 9Marks,

I was raised in a hyper program-driven church all my life until coming to a healthy church in Louisville for seminary. Growing up, we had at least six meetings per week. “Committed members” were expected to attend every one, even on weeks where there were 9+ meetings. All this is stipulated in the church covenant.

What’s worse, husbands were encouraged to attend meetings even when their wife fell ill or struggled to cope with children, or if they themselves were sick or burned out from work. Sadly, these practices have been cited in at least two divorces, and countless terrible relationships between fathers and their children.

When asked if this is healthy, the elders would respond that the local church should require the sacrifice and significant commitment of its members. Members are incredibly dedicated and their entire lives revolve around attending services; they’re being taught that their service to Christ is defined by attending church and being with the body.

Here’s the question: where do you draw the line on what to expect from members? How can you show someone that having too many meetings is actually unhealthy for a church?

—Tim

Dear Tim,

The church practice you’ve described above certainly is troubling. As you’ve already noticed, maintaining such severe attendance requirements is not only an overreach of the church’s authority, it also deleteriously affects the spiritual good of its members.

Certainly, the Bible commands that we regularly gather together (Heb 10:25), but it never specifies a minimum number of gatherings per week. Instead, if we look at the example of the early church and the apostles, we find that the church gathered once a week on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1). While the church may have gathered on other occasions (Acts 6:2), it appears the only mandated weekly gathering was for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.

How might you show that requiring too many meetings is unhealthy? Here are three suggestions:

1. Teach people the difference between wisdom and law.

While we might think it wise for church members to gather more than once a week, the Bible simply does not allow us to mandate that practice. A quick word to pastors: if you require your members to be involved in a small group or attend a second service, you’re mandating something the Bible does not—you’re requiring of your people something Jesus never does. Strongly encourage folks to join a small group and attend an additional service, but don’t bind consciences to do what Jesus never commanded.

In light of this distinction between wisdom and law, you may need to assess whether you’re confusing a mandated biblical principle with a specific church program. In other words, the Bible commands that Christians be hospitable and be involved in meaningful community. Your church may try to facilitate that principle with a small group program, but small groups are just one way someone can live in meaningful community. Don’t confuse the principle with the program.

2. Remind people that while Christians should orchestrate their lives around the local church, they also have legitimate responsibilities outside the local church.

We are finite beings with limited time and limited resources. While God calls us to invest in our local church, he also calls us to invest in our families (Eph 5:22–6:4), in our vocations (1 Thess 4:11–12), and in our neighbors. The local church should recognize its unique role in equipping its members to faithfully carry out their responsibilities in other avenues of life, not monopolize members’ time in a way that keeps them from faithfully obeying all the commands of Scripture.

3. Show people that much of what we do as a church occurs during unstructured time as ministry organically emerges in the life of the church.

Acts records that believers would meet in one another’s home and share meals (Acts 2:46). Much of our evangelism occurs as we’re simply living intentionally in our spheres of influence. Cluttering up the week with church programs often unnecessarily burdens church members’ schedules in a way that keeps them from being able to rub shoulders with fellow church members or with unbelievers. We certainly don’t want church programs monopolizing our members in ways that keep them from serving believers and evangelizing the lost.

—Sam Emadi

Dear 9Marks,

If a pastor is considering leaving a ministry—not on bad terms—then how much involvement should he give his current church into the decision to leave?

—Tom

Dear Tom,

While I cannot assess the particulars of every local church and situation, here are three questions you should consider when evaluating the congregation’s involvement in leadership change.

1. What is the wise and prudent course of action toward your congregation?

I know one brother who felt comfortable with his elders, and for six months asked them to pray through his decision-making process. In the end, they supported his decision. The opposite is also true: I’ve witnessed pastors go to leadership and share potential opportunities only to be met with an ultimatum. There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all approach, so you are going to have to employ a measure of wisdom.

Regardless, you need counsel from someone. Proverbs 14:15 might serve you well: “The naïve believes everything, but the prudent man considers his steps.” Seek godly counsel from those you can trust, and if possible, from those in your congregation.

2. After pursuing wisdom, ask: why you would not involve some level of the church body?

It may be wise to seek out a few, or it may be reasonable to tell the whole. But it just seems duplicitous to keep everyone in the dark. Love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6).

A pastor should exercise love and kindness to his church. I heard of one situation where a pastor preached the Sunday sermon and at the end stated, “And today is my last Sunday!” That doesn’t seem very loving. Having some type of involvement from people in your congregation will help you understand how such a decision will affect the flock you’re leaving.

3. How will you lovingly lead the church through transition?

If you know you’re leaving, then consider ways to bless the next guy who will take your place. Read Acts 20:17–38, and notice the love Paul had for the Ephesian church (and particularly the elders). Notice how there was both weeping and shepherding as Paul made his exit.

Consider also Deuteronomy 34. Moses preached to the people that he must leave. He cared for them in his departure by pointing them to the next leader God would provide. Hopefully, you’ve also been doing the work of raising up a brother or brothers to follow you.

In the end, a biblical shepherd will not only think of the flock he’s going to, but also the one he leaves behind.

—Mark Livingston

Dear 9Marks,

I’ve been the pastor of a revitalization effort for the past 3.5 years, and things have gone very well. People are responding to the Word and growing. However, there’s a small number of people who are pushing strongly for a more “centrist” approach in our doctrine, particularly in the area of soteriology (Calvinism, Arminianism, etc). They’d like us to remain ambiguous in our doctrine and our teaching to make room for members and leaders that might disagree. I know instinctively this will eventually cause problems, but I’m not sure how to respond. How would you approach that issue? Is it possible to have Reformed and Arminian elders in the same church?

—Pastor Jake

Dear Jake,

It is encouraging to hear that you are serving in the church and that people are responding to your ministry. That’s great!

You ask two questions if I could summarize them this way: 1) How do we handle calls for doctrinal ambiguity, and 2) Can you have elders with major convictions that differ?

In answering these questions, here are four things you should keep in mind.

First, realize that calls for ambiguity are often based out of fear and a lack of teaching. People are simply afraid of what they don’t know. An Arminian brother or sister might be afraid of the Calvinist bogeymen they’ve been warned about.

Your approach should be to teach God’s sovereignty with confidence, love, patience, and joy. Over time, this will instruct your congregation and hopefully break the caricatures of Reformed folks as cold intellectualists. Prayerfully read PJ Tibayan’s excellent article “Preach the Bible, Not Calvinism” as a model.

Second, in order to counter ambiguity, commit yourself to gospel-centered ministry. That’s the only centrist approach you can really adopt.

What does this mean? It means that you will stress the core doctrines of the gospel: substitutionary atonement, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and justification by faith alone in Christ alone. If you build from the center out, a robust gospel will tend to shape your church members, whether they’re self-professed Calvinists or Arminians.

Third, lean on your church’s documents. Use your statement of faith, church covenant, and constitution to support your efforts to teach your church. If you have a Calvinistic statement of faith, that helps. If you don’t, then so long as you don’t have a decidedly anti-Calvinistic statement of faith, then you’re free to simply teach from the Scriptures.

Fourth, you’ll have to reckon with your own conscience. Can you serve in leadership with those who strongly disagree with you about these issues? Are you prepared to raise up new leaders who embrace a gospel-centered culture while patiently shepherding those who lack certain convictions? I personally think elders need to have a high degree of doctrinal like-mindedness in order to nurture a church toward health.

I commend you for your courage and perseverance for over 3.5 years. May God give you the wisdom to point your church toward Jesus.

—Clint Humfrey