Mailbag #4: Gospel Culture, Elders and Porn

Mailbag
03.27.2015

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Elders and Porn »

Dear 9Marks,

If you could give just one piece of practical advice, how would you counsel a pastor seeking to develop a gospel culture in a small church that’s recently started to numerically grow, but is not keeping pace in its spiritual development?

—Chris, Australia

Chris,

Consider what your sermons are made of, and ask yourself how they might be retooled. That would be my one piece of practical advice. I’ll save my one piece of heart advice for the last paragraph.

Starting with the practical, think about it like this. The source of a church’s life, the source of its unity, and its raison d’etre, is nothing other than the gospel. So the diagnostic question I’d want to ask you is, what is the source of that numeric growth in your church, if it’s not gospel growth? Could it be that something else is attracting people? For the time being, that might feel harmless, maybe even exciting. But if something else is attracting them, you are building on that something else—and you’re potentially turning your church into a factory for producing nominal Christianity.

Nominal Christians should instead find our churches a little boring, sometimes a little uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because we’re rude or mean or severe. Uncomfortable because there is so much vulnerability, so much confessing of sin, so much I-heart-Jesus talk, so much willingness to live counter-culturally.

Now let’s go back to your sermons. True Christian life comes through the Word. So I would want to pull your preaching into the garage and take it apart like you would a car whose engine needs to be rebuilt. Ask questions like these:

Are my sermons the centerpiece of our gatherings? Does the time I give to them relative to other things in the service communicate that fact? Are they biblically meaty? When people walk away, are they more likely to remember how funny I was, how awesome my illustrations were? Or do they feel impacted by the point of the biblical text? Speaking of, have I worked hard in preparation through the week to make sure I understand the point of the text, and that I’m not just using the text as a spring board to say what I want to say? If God were in the audience week after week, would he say, “Yes, that’s what I was trying to say in that text!” Is my tone appropriate to the genre of the text? Am I working hard to connect the text with my particular people? Are my sermons too highbrow, too lowbrow? Are they sensitive to men and women, young and old, legalistic and licentious, the spiritually sleeping and the overly-zealous? Am I personalizing it to them? Applying it to them? And am I preaching Christian sermons—not moralism, but as always showing how a text points to the person and finished work of Christ? And as important as any question, am I personally living under the burden of the text—in conviction, repentance, and praise?

At the end of answering these kinds of questions, I would want to enlist the help of others, especially people I trusted, people willing to tell me hard truths. I’d ask them to help me take apart the engine, and then rebuild it again.

Last thought, and it’s maybe the most important: I recently spoke with a pastor friend who knows the biblical thing to do in his church, but he has nearly a hundred practical reasons not to do the biblical thing. I kept pointing him to the Bible. He kept agreeing, and then saying, “Yes, but.” Gradually I began to wonder if the real conversation was this: he wants a bigger church, and my biblical rationale wasn’t offering him that. The last question you should ask yourself if your church’s numeric growth is outpacing its gospel growth is, what’s really motivating your ministry? If it’s gospel growth, not numeric growth, are you willing to do the things that risk slowing down the numeric growth? No, those things don’t have to oppose one another. I get it. But they do more than most evangelicals will admit to themselves. So the real question is, are you willing to forsake numeric growth for the sake of gospel growth? If a pastor’s answer to that question is anything other than a solid “yes,” I can predict what kind of material he will use to build his church. And to the extent he uses other material, it will indeed be his church, not the Lord’s.

Dear 9Marks,

While I was in seminary I went through about a two year struggle with pornography use. I was always open about confessing my sin first to the Lord and then to my wife and church leaders. Since then, by God’s grace, the sin has largely been mortified. There is no longer a pattern of this type of sexual sin in my life. The leaders of my church are consistent in their counsel that I am qualified for eldership. However, I would like to reach out and get some other insight as well. I want to take this issue very seriously because I don’t want to continue in ministry if I’m actually not qualified to do it. I understand that without knowing me well it will be difficult to give an accurate assessment on this issue, but it would be tremendously appreciated if a word of general counsel could be given.

Bob, USA

Bob,

First, let me commend you for discussing this with your elders and wife. It’s right you did. (See Garrett Kell’s excellent “Should I tell my wife about my struggles with sexual purity?”) Second, let me praise God for the success you have enjoyed in putting it to death.

There are two ways I could interpret your question. If you’re asking, “Am I still disqualified for what I did several years ago?” I’m inclined to say “no, you’re not disqualified.” If our elders were considering a guy who had not looked at porn for four or five years, even though he did back then, I personally would be comfortable moving forward with his nomination. (Just in case any reader might draw out the wrong implication, I would not say the same thing if there had been a pattern of extra-marital affairs four or five years ago. Another conversation, that is.)

However, if you are asking, “Am I disqualified even though I do stumble every once in a while, but I have largely conquered it, and there is no longer a pattern?” then I would encourage you to wait longer. If our elders were considering a guy who looked at porn once last week for five minutes, but before that he had not looked at it for a year, I would not feel comfortable moving forward with his nomination. I’d say, praise God for the progress, let’s keep walking in the same direction another year or two!

Now, let me explain my “why” on both scenarios:

As you know, the relevant texts for examining both scenarios are Paul’s words about being “above reproach” and “a one-woman man” who is “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2). All three of those qualifications are at stake. And one way to measure those criteria—as a hypothetical—is to bring a sin into the light and ask the crowd. If the whole church knew an elder struggled with porn 5 years ago, would they be able to say he meets those criteria? I think so. Not only, the fact that he has been done with that sin for 5 years would likely appear as exemplary and commendable progress in the faith. Plus, it’s unlikely that individuals in the congregation could look at him and say, “Well, he does it every so often; so can I.”

However, if the whole church knew an elder looked at porn for 5 minutes last week, would they feel the same? In fact, I imagine some of them would start to make excuses for the man: “Hey, no one’s perfect. We can’t expect perfection, can we?” “I’m not going to the first to cast a stone.” “Didn’t Jesus say we can’t even lust, and who hasn’t lusted?” “Where’s the forgiveness?” And so forth. But all of these excuses (i) are a way of getting around the fact that the man did not fulfill these three criteria just a week ago; and (ii) are possibly a way of justifying their own ability to do as this man did by looking at porn every once in a while.

What does it mean when a man looks at pornography? It means he is willing not just in thought, but in deed, to forsake his wedding vows. He is willing to exploit another woman—someone’s daughter, someone’s one-day wife. He is willing to steal what does not belong to him. He is not exercising self-control.

What’s the lesson? I want the congregation learning from the elders in word and deed. I don’t want to train them in excuse-making; I want to train them in this: “Drink water form your own cistern, water flowing from your own well . . . take pleasure in the wife of your youth. . . . Let her breasts always satisfy you; be lost in her love forever. Why, my son, would you be infatuated with a forbidden woman or embrace the breast of a stranger?” (Prov. 5)

Think about the question of self-control. I would hate for this man to become an elder, stumble again, but then not want to tell anyone because he has appearances to keep up. Why burden a man with that! Just give him more time. Here’s a crucial bit: no man deserves to be an elder, and no man needs to be an elder. So what do you lose by giving him more time to mature?

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask a group of men to never look at porn, just like we expect our elders to never commit extra-marital affairs. I know our culture downplays the significance of porn, but, with the help of God’s grace, let’s not let our expectations of elders become complicit.

On a personal note, I offer this counsel with fear and trembling in my heart. I know my heart, and the old man still abides in me. Pray for me, I implore you, that God would not let me slip. I cannot begin to express how deeply I am dependent on mercy and grace in such matters.

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.