Mailbag #20: Preaching Suspect Texts; Preaching to Non-Believers; Difficulties with Staff & Lay Elders; Anonymous or Public Voting
We are planning to preach through the Gospel of John in 2016. If you are committed to expositional sermons through books of the Bible, how do you handle sections of the text like John 7:53-8:11 that are footnoted as not appearing in the earliest manuscripts? Should we preach them because they are included in the modern English translations but explain to the church that they are not in the earliest manuscripts?
Your job as a preacher is to preach the Word of God, a revelation written down by men divinely inspired, that has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and that is the true center of Christian union and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried. You are to preach that, not something else.
So the question for a preacher is simple: Is John 8 that? Is Mark 16:9-20 that? So dig into the commentaries, and text apparatuses, and any other tools you have and make a decision for yourself. That is the bottom line, I think. If, in the balance, you are convinced John 8 is the Word of God, preach it. If you are not, don’t.
When I preached through the Gospel of Mark, I did not preach 16:9-20. Neither did my present pastor, Mark Dever. He did, however, preach John 8 in his series on John. (I have never preached straight through John.)
I think you can offer your congregation a brief footnote on why you are doing what you are doing. And I mean two or three sentences. You don’t need to show them all of your homework. Yet as you figure out what to say to your church, filter everything you might say with this question: “What can I say about this that will give them more confidence in their Bibles when they open them at home, and not less?”
Since repentance and belief must be ongoing in a believer’s life, and since believers struggle with unbelief, I assume that preachers need to continually call believers to repentance and belief, just as they call unbelievers to repentance and unbelief. Agree? Assuming you do, do you make any distinctions in the way you call believers and unbelievers to repentance and belief? After all, you don’t want to tempt unbelievers into thinking they are believers, and you don’t want to tempt guilt-prone believers into doubting their salvation and thinking they are unbelievers.
I think you’re right. Both believers and unbelievers need to hear the call to repentance and faith over and over again, because believers, like unbelievers, still struggle with unbelief. Therefore, your exhortation or application on any given point of the text does not always need to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. Preaching the first commandment, for instance, you can say to the believer and unbeliever without distinction:
“This past week we have all had other gods besides God. We need to repent of our worship to those fake gods.”
But there is difference between believers and unbelievers, as you say. With believers, you have an ally “on the inside”—their regenerate, Holy Spirit indwelt hearts. With believers, you can appeal to the new man inside of them, trusting they are “with you.” Because of this, you can say:
“Oh, brother and sister in Christ, you know those other gods don’t finally deliver on their promises. You’ve been down that road, and it’s always led you to disappointment. Repent! Besides, you know Christ is better. Praise God, you have worshipped God, and you know how good he is.”
But with unbelievers, you can’t assume there is an ally on the inside. You can assume that, by common grace, they understand true things and that they have a natural, self-interested (not spiritual, God-glorying) desire to understand ultimately true things. You can also assume that special grace might be at work, so that the Word of Scripture could, at any given moment, smash their heart of stone and give it life. But finally, the unbeliever is not “with” you in the same way. They are not on the same team. There is a Rubicon they haven’t crossed that they need to cross. You have no ally “on the inside.”
Which means: you need to adopt a different posture toward unbelievers, as does your sermon. From time to time, you need to say things or apply texts in a way that will clarify for them the fact that they are standing in fundamentally different position with respect to both Christ and Christ’s people than are the members of your church.
So you might saying something like this:
“Friend, if you are here as someone who does not believe the truths of Christianity, you should know that the Bible tells us we’ve all rejected God and worshipped other gods. You might not think of yourself as religious, but we’re all religious. It’s just a question of which god you worship. But the Bible tells us there is only one true God, and that the worship of these false gods earns his wrath. Therefore, the Bible calls us all to repent and believe.”
Some pastors will probably say we should never make unbelievers feel like they are not with us, or that they are on the outside. But I would just point them back to Jesus’ example. And in general I would say you must help people to understand they are on the outside if there is any chance of bringing them inside.
Notice in these three examples I tried to use the first commandment to demonstrate how one could call believers and unbelievers to repentance and faith both indistinctly (example 1) and distinctly (examples 2 and 3). No doubt, part of that depends on being explicit in addressing them separately.
In other words, it is not so much that the call to repentance is different for believer and unbeliever; it is where they are standing or their fundamental posture that is different. Therefore, your posture toward them must be different as well.
One last note: I think preachers should primarily preach to their members, and let the unbelieving visitors overhear. (Some pastors disagree with that.) So I think the vast majority of your preaching applications sound like example 1 or 2 above. Then occasionally, you will explicitly address the unbeliever as I do in example 3. And there your posture changes from assuming an insider ally to not assuming it.
I hope this gets at what you were asking.
Our church is in the midst of transitioning to a council of elders leadership structure comprised of both staff pastors and lay elders. We are currently thinking through the relationships between and responsibilities of the staff pastors and lay elders once the transition is complete. How can we respect the authority and responsibility of the lay elders, while also giving the staff pastors freedom to operate and lead well? What topics (if any) should be dealt with in pastoral staff meetings (during the workday) as opposed to elder council meetings (evenings, weekends)?
I asked Mark Dever how he handles this one. He distinguishes three kinds of meetings:
1) Regular staff meetings (pastoral staff and non-pastoral staff): These meetings are used primarily for communicating, planning, and calendaring purposes. So each staff member gives a report of what they are working on, particularly those things that might impact other staff members. This helps everyone get on the same page. You might say these meetings are all about execution of the vision decided upon in the next two kinds of meetings.
2) Senior staff meetings (staff pastors only): Personal updates and pastoral decision-making.
3) Elder meetings (staff and non-staff elders or pastors): Pastoral and principial decision-making.
Notice that distinguishing between meetings 2 and 3 requires Mark to separate out personal, pastoral, and principial matters. They start with doing personal updates, which is a way of pastoring one another. And then they use the time to deal with various pastoral matters that have risen above their ability to deal with them by themselves. Anytime a question of principle is involved, however, they table that question until the whole elder-meeting. We understand that the whole eldership is given oversight of the whole flock. Therefore, questions involving principial matters should only be decided among the whole eldership. Maybe this is a particularly complicated membership or counseling matter that raises principled questions. Maybe it is something more logistical like whether a particular kind of group can use our building.
In that sense, the meetings of only staff-pastors function like any meeting of just non-staff elders, who, for instance, find themselves at dinner together some Friday night, and the conversation turns to either personal or pastoral matters: “Hey, brother, can you give me advice on counseling this couple?” Of course, if the matter discussed over dinner among lay elders impinged on a question of principle that the entire eldership had not previously discussed, we would bring it to the entire elder board. So it is with the staff elder meetings.
Obviously, deciding what topics and conversations belong in which bucket is not going to be an exact science. Judgment is required. But hopefully all this provides you with a starting point.
We are in the process of disciplining a member that looks like it will result in a congregational vote on the matter. Would you advise anonymous or public voting? The vote for receiving members is public involving raised hands. My tendency would be to follow the same procedure for a removal by discipline vote. My only concern here would be the potential image of controlling the flock by this means. In other words, some might not agree but be too afraid to voice disagreement in a public voting moment. At the same time, I don’t want to provide a means for people to disagree without asking questions or seeking answers prior to voting, and it seems that an anonymous vote opens the door for that scenario.
Thanks so much for your time and I look forward to your reply.
—Steve, South Carolina
I appreciate your pastoral sensitivity. Yes, there are potential risks in both directions. A public vote elicits transparency and conversation, but it could also tempt people just to vote with the crowd and not to vote their consciences. Plus, it seems like it could be more susceptible to manipulation by the leaders. Though I do think we see a biblical precedent for a congregational vote (2 Cor. 2:6), the Bible hardly tells us what method to use. So I think you can in good conscience go in either direction. It’s ultimately a judgment call.
Personally, I prefer a voice vote: “All those in favor say ‘Aye’ . . . All those opposed say ‘Nay.’” This is comparable to the raising of hands. Why do I prefer this method? Because as members of local churches, Jesus has charged each of us with taking responsibility in matters of membership and discipline. And we will give an account on the last day for whether or not we were faithful “priests,” and used our votes to help keep the New Testament temple (the church—see 1 Cor. 3:16) consecrated to the Lord. (Think also of Paul’s charge in 2 Corinthaisn 6:14-7:1.) Therefore, I would encourage members to stand behind their votes now, and not let fear of man rule the process. It’s our job as pastors to teach our members to fight against fear of man, not give into it.
Also, I think it’s useful to elicit discussion before the vote so that people might learn and be instructed. Sometimes, that one lone voice who decides to speak up last minute has information that no one else has, and the public vote just might draw the voice to the surface. Christians cannot afford not to have open and honest conversations, and so I tend to disfavor structures that work against such openness.
Finally, if you have a leader prone to using one method or another to manipulate the vote, you have a bigger problem than the method. The problem is the leaders.
But, Steve, there might be a set of circumstances in which I decide to do otherwise. I do want to leave it to your judgment.