Mailbag #88: Must Elders Agree on Tongues & Prophecy? . . . How Can We Wisely Hire a Pastor from Outside the Church?
How much agreement must elders have on the issue of tongues and prophecy? »
In a congregational church, how should we hire a new pastor from the outside? How can we give enough time for the church to properly vet the candidate? »
I have a question regarding how much doctrinal unity there should be among elders. I am a young minister at a church with elders whose beliefs span the spectrum on the spiritual gifts such as prophecy and tongues. At times this has caused some conflict, especially in relation to how we teach certain passages from the New Testament, as well as what gifts we encourage our people to pursue. Should elders agree on these issues? How much agreement on the revelatory gifts is needed among elders? Any guidance would be tremendously helpful.
Great question. Let’s start with a framework for triaging doctrine, and then apply that framework to the question of spiritual gifts and elders.
I serve in a non-denominational church that includes members from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Our elders have been helped by thinking about doctrinal topics in the categories of first, second and third order issues. (Here’s a great article by Dr. Mohler on that topic.)
First order issues are non-negotiable issues that one must believe as a biblical Christian. First order doctrines include the Trinity, penal substitutionary atonement, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the authority of the Bible, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, to name a few. A good doctrinal statement will enshrine these truths.
Second order issues are those that sincere, Bible-believing Christians can disagree over, and yet local churches must take a stand on one way or another. Baptism is a classic second order issue: Should churches baptize professing believers only, or also the children of professing believers? Your answer to that question should not rise to the level of saving truth. As a Baptist, I’m confident there will be many Presbyterians in heaven. And yet a local church must decide to baptize infants, or not. You can’t do both.
Third order issues are matters that Bible-believing Christians can disagree over, and (ideally) still remain in fellowship in the same church. Third order issues might include millennial views or debatable matters of conscience.
I think elders should be united on first and second order issues. They must be able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (first order) and they should be able to support the local church’s polity practices (second order). Tension sometimes emerges in churches over second order issues since they are debatable, and yet a church must treat them as settled. Because of this tension, elders need to be unified in their endorsement of the church’s secondary positions. Otherwise, members can get mixed messages from the elders, potentially resulting in confusion and division.
Using those categories, let’s return to your question about prophecy and tongues. Is this a first, second, or third order issue? I think the challenge with prophecy and tongues is that they are somewhat second order and somewhat third order.
Imagine three church members discussing tongue-speaking over a cup of coffee. One member believes the gift has ceased. The next member believes in principle that God gives the gift of tongues today, but in practice she’s uncomfortable around people who do it, and even a little skeptical. The third member claims to speak in tongues regularly and grieves that the other two are missing out on a blessing.
That hypothetical conversation strikes me as third-order. The three Christians can debate the issue, and have different personal practices, and yet still be in fellowship together in a local church. I think at the coffee-conversation level, those three church members could even be elders and the issue remains third-order.
However, when those three members leave the coffee shop and go to church Sunday morning, the issue suddenly becomes second-order. Will that church give a platform for tongue-speaking and prophesying in the gathered worship, or not? This is a binary, either/or question. And the answer shapes the practice of the church just like the questions of infant vs. believer baptism, or complementarianism vs. egalitarianism.
Bryan, I presume your church has a practice one way or the other. Your elders need to be unified around and supportive of the way your church includes or excludes tongues and prophecy in gathered worship.
But there’s another second-order dimension to tongues and prophecy. How will the elders address the issue in their shepherding of the congregation? Is it okay for elders and pastors to give words of prophecy to members as part of their care for members? What if a continuationist elder gives the member a prophecy, but the next elder, a cessationist, discourages the member from taking the prophecy seriously? Or if a member claims to have received a message from God and brings it to the elders, what weight will the elders give to that message as they respond?
So to answer your original question: How much agreement on the revelatory gifts is needed among elders? At the minimum, there needs to be enough to produce an agreed-upon practice both in the church’s gathered worship—and probably also in other gatherings like small groups and prayer meetings—and in the elders’ shepherding. Ideally, the more unity the better.
When the elders are unified on how revelatory gifts will or won’t function in the church, they’ll be better equipped to handle teaching on the topic. So when I teach on the gifts at my church I’m able to say something like, “Prophecy and tongues are issues on which sincere Christians disagree. At our church we have people with different perspectives on the issue. And yet in our worship we don’t practice public tongues or prophecy, nor do we believe there is a second baptism of the Spirit to be sought after conversion.” With those caveats in place I also feel free to say, “I can tell you what I believe, but know that my view is not the church’s official position.” Once your elders have greater unity on how tongues and prophecy operate at the second order level, they will also have more clarity on how to teach on the topic.
May the Lord give you wisdom, unity and humility as an elder team to work through the issues. And as a word of encouragement, I have found that debating these issues and coming to agreed-upon policies has not only brought clarity to the church, but has also helped the elders grow in their thinking and in their charity toward one another..
What’s the process for hiring a new pastor from outside the congregation at congregationally ruled church? Specifically, how do you give the church time to knowingly vet the candidate when he has financial obligations and limited timetable?
While the Scriptures don’t give us specific instructions for hiring pastors, we do find biblical principles that will help provide wisdom on how churches should go about this. The current elders of a church are entrusted with its spiritual oversight (1 Tim. 5:17, Heb. 13:17). They bear responsibility to lead the congregation in appointing a new pastor. The congregation is finally responsible for the teaching they sit under in the church (Gal. 1:6–9) and therefore pastors should be appointed by the vote of the congregation.
The process of nominating pastors should involve both the elders vetting and nominating a candidate and the congregation giving final approval. In light of this, it seems wise when nominating a pastor—whether he’s from inside or outside of the congregation—that the elders of a church give a period of time for the congregation to consider the nomination before being called on to vote.
I recommend that churches agree on this process in their constitution and bylaws. At my local church, our constitution states that there must be a minimum of eight weeks between the elders’ nomination and the congregation’s vote. This provides the congregation with adequate time to consider such an important decision.
If the pastor is nominated from outside the congregation, we want to use that eight-week period to help the congregation get to know him. We will bring the nominated pastor in to preach a sermon and give the congregation a chance to hear him handle the Word. We also want the congregation to hear his testimony and have a time to directly ask him questions. We’ll schedule a special members’ meeting where we host a “Q&A” session. Additionally, we instruct our members that if they have any questions or concerns about the nomination, that they should come and share them with one of the elders. This eight-week period provides a sufficient amount of time for the congregation to make a wise decision while also allowing for the hiring process to move forward at a reasonable pace.