Mailbag #31: Healthy Membership before Healthy Eldership; Difficult Shepherding Situation; Ordination; Tithing
We are presently transitioning to meaningful membership and an elders/deacon structure at our Baptist church. Right now we have a pastor and some deacons with the pastor doing most of the work. All the leaders are on board with the change, but do not know what the next move should be. Do we first educate the congregation about elders and deacons and then install them, or do we educate about meaningful membership and then make meaningful membership part of how we operate? Obviously we want to do both, but does the order matter? Or is it a local church decision?
—Zeek, West Virginia
If you have an unhealthy heart and lungs, should you take your heart or lung medicine first? Uhhhh. I’d say take both, if you can.
In the same way, be teaching your congregation about the church in all of its aspects: members, elders, deacons, ordinances, mission, etc. You could do a special sermon series on the church, or you could just preach 1 Corinthians or 1 Peter or the Pastorals! In fact, I think pastors in general should learn how to include corporate (church related) applications into every sermon. Teach in your Sunday School or small groups. Pass out books and articles. Wherever you can, teach.
Meanwhile, be canvassing your fellow leaders and your congregation in order to get a sense of what kinds of structural or programmatic changes the church is ready for. Maybe they are ready to pass a new constitution that calls for elders and deacons. Maybe they are ready to hear that you have begun to require every prospective member to sit through a membership class before joining the church. Or, maybe not and maybe not.
I can imagine some scenarios where, due to a particular vein of hostility in the congregation, doing one will be easier than the other, or vice-a-versa. Then I would say what any doctor would say faced with two maladies that might be subtly interconnected: do whichever is easier first. A healthier heart will make it easier for a body to receive lung treatment, and healthy lungs will make it easier for a body to receive heart treatment.
Would your members more easily accept any programmatic changes that come with meaningful membership? Do that first. Or would moving to an elder/deacon structure be easier? Then do that. But you’re always teaching, always shepherding, always grabbing whatever opportunities you can to make changes that (if possible) won’t start a fight or cause disunity.
Sometimes you have to pick the fights, of course. But every once in a while you can build a healthy church up around the point of controversy, which allows for the flowers to choke out the weeds all by themselves.
I pray this is useful.
In the meantime, she has been attending other gospel-preaching churches in the area and plans to continue doing so.
Should we encourage her to join another church where she is attending? Or should we be patient even if it takes years? She hasn’t been to our church for several months now, but her husband attends weekly. Would there be a scenario when you would move toward discipline for non-attendance, especially considering that she is attending another gospel preaching church? Thoughts?
— Phil, Illinois
It’s awfully hard to me to prescribe an exact course of medicine because I don’t know her or him or your church. Here are a few principled thoughts that might help you along the way:
1) People who have been sinned against often seek to recover by taking control into their own hands. Whether you are the victim of adultery, a bully, a thief, racism, a bad boss, or any other form of injustice, instincts for self-protection will inevitably kick in, and you’ll do whatever you can to avoid being vulnerable again. Some people fight, some take flight. Sometimes the changes they demand are healthy and in keeping with trusting God. Sometimes the demands are inordinate and in defiance of trusting God.
Now, I would have loved to hear that she turned toward the church during this time of trial, not away from it. Assuming your church is healthy, that would have been a sign of spiritual health in her (see point 8 below). Nonetheless . . .
2) Be slow to assume you can understand the depths of another’s pain. You’re right to want to be patient. It’s hypothetically possible in my mind that this woman has never liked her husband and has always despised the church and is secretly glad he was unfaithful because it’s giving her an excuse to get away from both. And it’s possible that she loved both dearly, but that now lifelong fears of what happened to her parents at age 5 are coming true in her own life and her emotional system simply cannot cope with it all. You and I don’t finally know the exact formula that makes up her insides, nor does the Holy Spirit expect us to. Instead, we should assume the best of her until concrete evidence says otherwise.
3) By this token, it will be a rare situation indeed where you would choose to formally discipline someone who has been egregiously sinned against. I’m fairly confident I could shock you with stories of what our elders have overlooked because the sinners in question had previously been abused and/or cheated on. I’m not saying you should never discipline this woman, but, goodness, I have difficulty imagining you have come anywhere close to the threshold.
Furthermore, keep in mind that, as far as I understand, Jesus has given her grounds to divorce this man (Matt. 19:9). And Jesus hates divorce. Yet sexual immorality is a big enough of a deal in Jesus’ mind that he condones divorce in such circumstances. We should be very slow then to burden her conscience contrary to Jesus. Which means, if she wants to spend some time temporarily separated from her husband (or “his” church), I think that’s okay.
4) In general, we should not discipline individuals attending (even if they have not joined) other gospel-preaching churches. Nowhere does the Bible command a person to attend or join “our” church.
5) It’s more important for a marriage to be restored than for the man and wife to attend any one particular biblically faithful church. I’m glad to hear he is prospering in your church, and that makes me reluctant to encourage him to go elsewhere because I wouldn’t want to interrupt a good thing. Still, if I have a choice between two biblically-faithful churches, and his wife is in the other one, I might encourage him to attend the one where his wife attends, assuming she would want him to come.
I would not encourage him to insist on which church they attend in order to regain his “authority.” Encourage him to regain his authority not with commands but by leading with grace and doing everything he can to put her interests before his own, even as Christ did with the church.
6) If the elders or members of the church have wrongfully neglected her, they should apologize. Now, people who have been hurt often make accusations against church leaders, and often they are unfair. That’s fine. You can graciously take it in stride. Don’t defend yourself. But if the leaders feel convicted they failed to do something they should have done, they should apologize.
7) It’s difficult to establish a time limit for how long a person can be a member of one church but attend another. I mean, set aside the question of adultery, and it’s still difficult to know how long I would let someone be a member of my church but attend another—three months? Six months? Nine? And even then, I’m going to do all I can to encourage the person to resign their membership from my church if with nothing more than a sentence-long email. Again, that’s assuming I know they are at least attending another church. Add in the question of adultery, and I’m going to do whatever I can to encourage the hurt party just to join the other church, even if the spouse remains at my own.
8) Your “ecclesial” goal is not to cross your membership “t”s and dot your programmatic “i”s; it is to shepherd her toward life-giving, gospel-reminding relationships where she can learn to trust again. When we trust in God rightly, we learn to trust others rightly, and that trust will be expressed in our ability to fulfill all the “one anothers”—including the “submit to one anothers”—that we find in Scripture. Which is to say, the ability to trust other people can be a sign of spiritual health.
Oh, but spiritual trust is a tender thing, and hard to rebuild once broken. So your primary goal must not be for her to trust you or your leaders once again (necessarily), it is to help her to trust some biblically faithful church. Keep reminding her that you are her advocate, and that your goal is just to see her somewhere (it doesn’t have to be to your church) where she can be opening up her life to spiritual fellowship because you know that few things will better aid the healing process than learning to trust God and other people once again.
Bottom line, friend, I think I’m saying “more time” and “encourage him to attend church with her” and “encourage her to find a church where she think she can learn to trust again.” I assume you have already encouraged a few mature women in the church, especially any mature friends of hers, to get around her and shepherd her through the process.
May God give you grace and wisdom.
What is a biblical view of ordination to the pastorate? Also, does 9Marks have anything I can read regarding pathways/processes for ordaining ministers?
Most connectional churches (PCA, OPC, ECA, etc.) will have a book of order that describes their own ordination process. I assume therefore you are coming from an independent church, whether congregational or elder-ruled.
The Bible does not say much about ordination to the pastorate. It says men must be appointed to the office of elder (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), which is to say, specially recognized. And that presumes they are specially recognized before the congregation, and that the congregation affirms these men as pastors and their leaders (1 Thes. 5:12; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Perhaps this was done by the laying on of hands (see 1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6). But that’s about all the Bible says on the formal side of things.
Charles Hodge’s definition of an “office” helps us understand what’s at stake. He writes,
The ministry is properly an office, because it is something which cannot be assumed at pleasure by any and every one. A man must be appointed thereto by some competent authority. It involves not only the right, but the obligation to exercise certain functions, or to discharge certain duties; and it confers certain powers or prerogatives, which other men are bound to recognize and respect. (Discussions in Church Polity, 346).
The first question you need to ask, therefore, is who is the “competent authority” to appoint or affirm a man to this office, which the church is then bound to recognize and respect. As a congregationalist, I would say that that competent authority is the congregation itself—it must appoint or affirm a man. The first step of the so-called ordination process, then, is the congregational vote.
Now, our elders don’t typically use the language of “ordination.” The word can carry unhelpful medieval or mystical resonances of some sort of Holy Spirit emblazoned mark on a man’s soul, which we don’t think exists. Plus, while we would affirm the Presbyterian Hodge’s idea of a specially recognized “office,” we would not speak of an actual “order” that, once a man belongs to it, he always belongs to it. When an elder leaves our church, he should no longer regard himself as an “elder” or “pastor.” His eldership or pastorship lasts only as long as the church affirms him as one. Pastoring or eldering is a job, not an order. Leave the job, you leave the “order.” So we would never have anything like the PCA’s category of an “elder out of bounds.” Nor would we encourage you to call someone “pastor” who is not presently doing the work and not recognized by a church as one of its pastors. Pastors are tied to congregations, like shepherds to sheep. Is a shepherd with no sheep really a shepherd?
Once our congregation votes on a man, we will formally “install” him as an elder on the following Sunday morning. He will recite a number of vows; the congregation will recite a number of vows. And then several elders will pray for him, typically while laying hands on him. You can see both sets of vows here.
What is your view on tithing concerning New Testament believers?
I offered a few thoughts on this topic in a previous Mailbag. But here is an article by Pastor Jamie Dunlop that my church gives to everyone who attends our church membership classes:
Title: How Much Should We Give? (A Capitol Hill Baptist membership class handout by Jamie Dunlop)
When the offering plate passes you by on Sunday morning, how much does Jesus expect you to give?
Giving in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, God commands his people to give 10 percent of their income to support the Levites—the religious teachers of the day. Plus, there were a couple more required offerings, all three of which added up to roughly 23 percent of an Israelite’s annual income, to say nothing of the temple tax and voluntary offerings.
Yet how much more have we received from Christ than the Old Testament saints could have imagined! Giving for the Christian is one way we use our money to invest for an eternal return. Giving helps us loose the chains that money can wrap around our hearts. Giving says, “God is sufficient.”
Giving in the New Testament
Christians sometimes assume their responsibility starts and ends with giving 10 percent to a favorite charity. But that’s not quite right. Ten percent may be a good starting point based on Old Testament precedent. Think of Abraham giving that much to Melchizedek. But nowhere does the New Testament tell Christians to give a “tithe” (which means 10 percent).
Instead, Paul instructs each Christian to give “in keeping with his income” (1 Cor. 16:2), which is to say, as much as one is able. Elsewhere he commands, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6; see also 1 Cor. 9:14). And he commends one church for giving “with rich generosity” and “beyond their ability” (2 Cor. 8:2,3).
Yet the Bible also teaches that what we give to the church must be balanced with our other financial obligations. Paul says that a man who does not provide for his family’s basic needs “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Money is just one of many stewardships God has given to us, like time or relationships. And just as we should make “the best use of the time” (Eph. 5:16) for God’s glory, so we should with our money.
Our elders recommend that you start by giving 10 percent of your income to the church (or less if biblical constraints such as 1 Tim. 5:16 so require). But more importantly we would encourage you to remember that every dollar in your bank account is an opportunity to bring glory to God. So would that next dollar best be used for extra needs at the church? Or to hire a babysitter so you can disciple a younger Christian? Or to give your family rest and intentional time together on a family vacation? Or to buy this house versus that house because it allows you to do hospitality? You are utterly free in Christ to decide! The point is, use all your money for the Lord.
If you have no income, still work to give from what you do have (money, time, relationships, etc.) so that the first day you have an income it feels second-nature to give again.
Some Practical Counsel
- Give to your local church first. Since the local church is the primary source of teaching, it should be the primary recipient of your giving (see Gal. 6:6; 1 Cor. 9:14).
- Give regularly and deliberately. Paul told the Corinthians to set aside money on the first day of every week (1 Cor. 16:2). Giving to the church should not be a spontaneous decision. Plan ahead. Build it into your budget.
- Give sacrificially and cheerfully. God loves a cheerful giver and he calls all of us to take up our cross and follow him (2 Cor. 9:7; Luke 9:23). Our entire lives should be lived in sacrificial obedience, including our giving. Remember that whatever you give pales in comparison to what you are receiving in Christ.
- Seek wise counsel. We should not give to impress others (Matt. 6:2), and yet it’s foolish to make decisions about money alone (Prov. 15:22, 1 Tim. 6:10). Be transparent with at least someone at your church about your whole life—including how much and where you give.