Mailbag #23: Giving Feedback on Bad Sermons; Ratio among Staff and Non-Staff Pastors; Church Covenants and the Regulative Principle; Difference between “Pastors” & “Elders”?


Giving Feedback on Bad Sermons »
Ratio among Staff and Non-Staff Pastors »
Church Covenants and the Regulative Principle »
Difference between “Pastors” & “Elders”? »

Dear 9Marks,

I have a question regarding giving a pastor feedback on his sermon. We started attending 3 years ago when the church began moving toward gospel-centered teaching. Lately, it appears that the dropping attendance numbers, money, and conflicting theological and ecclesiological views among the elder-teaching team (the pulpit is shared by 3 teachers) has led them to begin to move back toward pragmatic man-centered teaching. Sunday to Sunday, the pastors flip flop between gospel-centered and pragmatic. Last Sunday, the sermon was particularly bad. The pastor was the hero of the sermon. Christ wasn’t preached. And we got a list of 5 ways to raise your kids. It was all practical with no Bible. The text simply provided a springboard to talk about his topic.

As a lay member, this was sad and troubling to me. But I am not sure what my role is in approaching the pastor to give him feedback. When they have a “good week” I go out of my way to tell them I was encouraged by the gospel and how my soul is refreshed to walk out of there with more than just a list of rules to follow. I have wrestled far more in how to handle the “bad weeks.” I have considered drafting an email to discuss, but haven’t pulled the trigger.

—Michael, Arkansas


Good question. Think about the Proverbs. Sometimes you should rebuke a man and sometimes you shouldn’t (Prov. 26:4-5). Ecclesiastes, too, says there is a time to speak and time to keep silent (Eccl. 3:7). The challenge is always, what time is it now?

Figuring out the “time” depends upon your relationship with the pastor. Have you earned his trust through acts of service and other demonstrations of love? Does he regard you as a generally encouraging and supportive friend?

Also, keep in mind that a criticism can be heavily delivered or lightly delivered. Call it the front-door versus the side-door approach. To send a long, thoughtful email is to walk right up to the front door and bang the knocker. It’s pretty heavy. With face-to-face encounters you can walk up to the front door: “Do you have some time to speak? There is something important I need to discuss with you. I’ve noticed a pattern . . .” But face-to-face encounters also allow for a side-door, lighter approach. “Hey, those five tips offered wisdom I easily forget—thanks! But I did not hear any gospel encouragement for parents who try to follow such wisdom and fail. Did I miss it? Maybe I tuned out.” Heavy rebukes use lots of words, lots of explanations and qualifications, and a somber tone. Lighter rebukes last a sentence or two and employ an upbeat tone.

Now put these last two points together: the more trust you’ve earned, the more you are able to walk right up to the front door and knock. And trust usually (not always) is earned in the context of relationship.

I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with the pastor, Michael, but assuming you are an acquaintance or less, I might start with a lighter approach instead of a heavier one. See how that goes. And by lighter I don’t mean “passive aggressive.” No, be clear and straightforward; be short and winsome. Don’t try to persuade. Just plant the seed and let the Holy Spirit do any convincing that needs to be done. And maybe you can offer a couple side-door comments over time, but probably not more.

In the meantime, ask yourself, are there ways you can build your relationship with the pastor(s)? Are there ways you can serve and love? If so, do that for a year or two.

At some point, perhaps, you can and maybe should walk right up to the front door and knock: “Pastor, there is something I would like to discuss with you.” The more he knows you for being an encouraging and helpful ministry partner, the more likely he will hear your wisdom, if indeed that is what you have to offer.

In the final analysis, if the trajectory toward moralistic and man-centered sermons is set, you may want to leave the church. Don’t try to fix what you cannot fix. It’s always possible that you are in the wrong, and remembering that possibility will prevent you from pushing too hard. Sometimes it is better to go elsewhere, leaving them with your prayers, blessings, and a tender heart.

I pray God causes your love to abound with knowledge and depth of insight, that you might discern what is best.

Dear Jonathan,

I am emailing to ask a question regarding eldership. I visited your church recently, and learned that you recommended removing a line in your church constitution that required a majority of the elders to be lay (non-staff). Our church has been thinking about adding a line to our constitution that does just the opposite: “The number of voting vocational elders (i.e., pastors) must not exceed the number of non-vocational elders.”

I was hoping to hear your thoughts on our proposed amendment. I think it’d be helpful for our elders to hear an outside opinion on the matter.

—Adam, Illinois


You are correct. When our church adopted a new constitution in 1998, we included a provision that required a majority of the elders to be lay elders. A couple of years ago, I encouraged our elders and then our congregation to remove that provision, which the church voted to do.

Different people had different motivations for supporting the provision in the first place. Some thought the provision would “indigenize” leadership in the church since lay-elders tended to be more stable than vocational pastors who come and go. And that would provide for stability in leadership. Some thought it would force staff-elders to work harder at discipling up lay-elders. Some thought it would protect the church against over-encroaching staff leadership.

All of these are reasonable goals.

Yet over the ensuing 15 years, we found that the lay-elders came and went more quickly than the staff elders due to the transient nature of life in Washington, DC. We would spend four or five years discipling a man, appoint him as an elder, and then two years later his job would send him elsewhere. Ahhh! As such, we often found ourselves bumping up against the ratio limit and unable to nominate biblically qualified staff members as elders. The more we thought about it, the more we realized there is no biblical rationale for preventing a qualified, congregation- and elder-endorsed man from serving who wants to serve. And doing so deprived the church of a shepherd it could otherwise have.

Not only, requiring a majority of elders to be non-staff elders subtly changed the power structure. It gave a permanent monopoly of power to the lay-elders, which hardwired a tension into the elder relationships. We decided it was better to affirm simply with Scripture that the elders possess a shared oversight of the flock. Any “checks” on authority inside the elder board should occur through the natural course of relationships, each man working to love and correct any brother in error. And any “extra” authority an elder or group of elders acquires should be the consequence of faithful service rendered, such as naturally accumulates through consistent and faithful teaching or a pronounced track record of one-on-one care for the sheep. This way, we would better avoid making formal prescriptions where the Holy Spirit hasn’t and introducing these subtle imbalances into our governing structures.

I don’t know if all the elders agreed with me, but I personally felt that the majority requirement contradicted the regulative principle, which states that we should only establish structures in our churches that are commanded or exampled in the New Testament. In response to this particular argument, one brother elder asked me, “What about constitutions? Those aren’t in the Bible. Should we get rid of our constitution, too?” In reply, I would say the regulative principle applies to the what and the who (elements)but not to the how (forms)Scripture tells us what to do (preach, teach, sing, pray, gather, distribute ordinances). It tells us who should do what (elders, deacons, etc.). It does not tell us everything about how to do these things: Preach 20 minute or 60 minute sermons? Teach in a Sunday School program or only whole church gatherings? Sing 7 old songs or 2 new songs? A constitution falls under the “how” of organizing ourselves. It’s a useful and optional form. But the elements which the constitution includes? Yes, those must be biblical. And stating who could and could not be an elder, in my mind, transgressed into territory we should not go.

Notice finally that Scripture “fears” not a preponderance of staff or lay elders (see 1 Tim. 5:17). It “fears” unfaithful elders. And the constitutional provision guarded against one possible imbalance—a majority of unfaithful staff elders. But it didn’t guard against another danger—a majority of unfaithful non-staff elders. The Bible therefore presents a balanced solution to both dangers by giving final authority to the congregation, including the authority to install or remove elders (see Gal. 1:6-9).

There are a number of other questions you might have. Therefore, here you will find a FAQ that we distributed to the congregation that gives you more of our thinking.

Dear 9Marks,

In a recent mailbag recent mailbag you explain why you don’t believe baby dedications should be done in church. Serving in a European context with the liberal baby-baptizing state church and baby-dedicating ex-state church people (who are now free church people) all around, I very much agree with what you say. However, your answer brought up another question that I have been thinking about for a while. You base your argument on the regulative principle and conclude with mentioning your church’s practice to read the church covenant together. How does this fit together with the regulative principle?

—Chris, Switzerland


I wondered if someone would ask this! Very perceptive. “So you’re saying, Jonathan, that won’t do baby dedications because they are not in the Bible, but you will read a church covenant out loud, even though those aren’t in the Bible. Huh?! Get your argument straight, Leeman!” A sensible reply.

Okay, so we all have to figure out some formula for what we will and won’t do when the church gathers, right? I mean, everyone has some standard for what they would and wouldn’t do in a church gathering. I don’t know anyone who recommends throwing a basketball around during a church service. But why not toss a basketball around?

To keep our regulations from being subjective, and to maximize the freedom of believers by not requiring them to participate in ceremonies that the Bible does not require of them, some of us say churches should only do what’s commanded or exampled in the New Testament. That is the regulative principle.

Yet using the Bible as our standard leaves a lot of questions unanswered: What time do we meet? Can we use microphones? What about music? Can we fulfill the command to “teach” by dividing up into Sunday School classes? For this reason, theologians have long distinguished between elements and forms/circumstances. The elements specify what we should do and who should do it. The forms or circumstances specify how the who should do the what. The elements are like the furniture (couch, table, etc); the forms are like the style of furniture (upholstered, oak, etc.).

Different standards apply for elements and forms/circumstances. For elements, you need a proof text. I only want the furniture in the room that Scripture says should be in the room. For forms/circumstances, you just need to make sure Scripture doesn’t forbid what your church does.

Baby dedication ceremonies, I believe, are an element—a new piece of furniture that we don’t find in the Bible. Church covenants (or reading the church covenant in a church gathering), I believe, are a form—a furniture style. The biblical element in motion here is the agreement necessary in order for “two or three to gather in his name” (Matt. 18:20). The language of two or three in Matthew 18 (see v. 16) invokes the ancient Jewish principle of fellow witnesses agreeing upon a charge in court. They must agree with one another, and agree that they agree with one another, that Jesus is the Messiah. A written church covenant, I propose, is one way (form) two or three or three thousand can agree that they agree with one another about the gospel. And reading it out loud is just a part of that.

Now, you might not agree with the bucket I just placed dedications and covenants in, respectively. But hopefully you can see why we need both the elements and forms buckets generally.

Dear 9Marks,

Hi, I’m an associate pastor in a rural congregation. Recently I have come to see the uniform biblical pattern of a plurality of elders in the context of a local church. I also understand that the words pastor, elder, and overseer are all used interchangeably in Scripture.

My question centers around how we use the title “pastor” for vocational ministers and “elder” for lay ministers. Is it possible that this inadvertently creates two tiers of pastoral leadership? And do you think it would simply be too foreign to a congregation if both vocational and nonvocational ministers would all be referred to as pastors instead?

Very thankful for your ministry!

—Drew, Missouri


I know of churches that refer to all the staff and lay elders as “elders,” and I know of churches that refer to all of them as “pastors.” My own church refers to staff and lay elders alike with both words, and we are somewhat intentional about using both.

I am not at all opposed to staff elders wielding a bit more informal authority since these men devote their entire working week to serving the church. The lay elder who thinks he can pop into a meeting every other week, give ten minutes of thought to a matter, and then expects the staff elders to hop to attention, quickly heeding his directions, needs a lesson in humility and gratitude for the work the staff elders do (and I say this as a lay elder).

That said, yes, we want to guard against formalizing the distinctions between lay and staff elders. After all, the Scriptures make no distinction, but gives oversight to them all. And calling one group “pastors” and another group “elders” can effectively create two offices in the minds of members.

One qualification: I don’t expect outsiders or non-Christians to understand all this. If someone on an airplane asks me what I do, I could in good conscience say that I’m a “pastor.” But I know this will communicate something that I don’t mean to communicate. Instead, I will say that I’m a writer, and, perhaps, depending on where the conversation goes, I might say that I’m an elder in a church. Part of communication is knowing how people hear your words and adjusting your language to them. So there may be a time and a place to distinguish between pastors (a vocational designation) and elders (a voluntary role).

But your basic instincts, Drew, are correct: you want to train your congregation to regard lay and staff as holding the same office, and taking care with titles can help with that.

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.