Okay, if youre particularly interested in reading this because you want
an answer to the question implicit in the title, youre the exact kind
of person for whom this kind of article might be really dangerous. You
might be looking a little too hard for a man-made rulebook. Proceed with caution.
Speaking personally, I probably wouldnt turn to an article for an answer
to the titles question. Rather, I would turn to trusted counselors who
knew me and the situation in which I pastor. Abstract principles need to be
tested by Scripture, and even true ones can be badly misapplied.
Let me give you an example. Christian churches should practice church discipline.
True. And Christian churches are in sin if they tolerate unrepentant sin. True.
As a pastor, I should not lead my church into sin. True.
Okay, suppose I discuss all these matters with a brother-pastor and feel confident
that were on the same page about them. But now, imagine this. What if
a few weeks later, I get a call from this pastor telling me that he had been
Fired?! Why? I ask incredulously. I thought they liked
They did, he responds. But after our conversation the other
day, I felt convicted that I should lead my congregation to practice church
discipline so as not to tolerate sin.
Yes, I prod, so?
So, he replies, when the former senior pastors daughter
has been known for some time to not be attending (though still a member) and
even living with her boyfriend, I suggested at a deacons meeting that
we do something about it. The next thing you know
I interrupt, No
need to go on, I can guess much of the rest of the story.
Something can be true, yet we can decide as pastors that our congregations
are not ready to act tomorrow in a way they might be ready to act in a year.
Jesus himself declined to answer all the questions the disciples put to him,
for the reason that they could not yet bear some truths.
Im not suggesting that you be deceptive, but simply that you explain
things to your congregation as they are ready to hear them.
So, given that long warning, what things can I and cant I live with
as a pastor? Let me throw out a bunch of different examples that are relevant
to my particular situation: organs, female elders, universalism, altar
calls, humor, multi-site campuses, drums, the KJV, stained glass, racism, infant
baptism, no formal membership, sermons limited to 10 minutes, large and high
pulpits, TV studio-like acoustics. My goal in what follows is not to give you
a sacrosanct playbook, but to illustrate how I go about thinking through practical
matters. Lets take each one in order.
1. Organs. I can live with an organ. I can live without an organ. I can even
live with an organ thats too loud. But I dont want to! Organs are
not in the Bible. Congregational singing is. Any accompaniment which smothers
and thereby discourages congregational singing should be reformed or eliminated.
Given the financial and emotional commitments that are represented in organs,
movement for change here should be slow.
2. Female elders. I might be able to live with female elders, but not for
long, and probably not at all, so I probably just shouldnt try. I want
to allow for those situations in which youve had an ill-taught church
thats willing to follow your leadership, where even the female elders
themselves are happy to step down. But normally, if a church accepts female
elders, has been clearly instructed to the contrary, and will not change, that
seems like a battle you wont win. So I probably wouldnt even begin
with such a church.
3. Universalism. I cannot put up with a church which teaches that Christ died
as a substitute in the same way for everyone so that everyone will be saved.
The Bible doesnt teach that. That undermines the gospel. Unless they
would repent immediately, I wouldnt even begin with such a church.
4. Altar calls. I can live with altar calls. This is a longer conversation,
but you must first realize how your congregation views them. If they are lightly
invested in them, you can probably remove them fairly soon and easily. If they
are the emotional highpoint of the service, then you probably need to spend
some time changing the language you use about them, and then, over time, educate
the congregation that Jesus called people to repent of their sins and to trust
in him. The physical motion to which he called them was not walking down an
aisle but taking up the cross.
5. Humor. I can live with some diversity on humor. Surely, some kinds of humor
would always be out of bounds (e.g., obscene, impure, crude). Other forms of
humor and the quantity of humor are more a matter for wisdom. And I can imagine
some variety between congregations here. But even here I would want to work
for as much agreement in understanding and practice within a church as possible.
6. Multi-site campuses. I can live with multi-site campuses. But only if they
are a temporary measure while the congregation builds a larger meeting space,
or where the two sites are a segue to an independent church plant. Otherwise,
I cannot live with them, and, praying Gods prosperity on the now two
churches and their ministry, I would move on. (I think the church is one assembly).
7. Drums. I can live with drums. Like organs, if they are overpowering and
actually discourage congregational singing, then I would prefer not to live
with them for long. No instrument should discourage the biblical practice of
congregational singing. But here, as in so many other places, teach before
you act, and certainly before you call the congregation to act.
8. The King James Version of the Bible. I can live with the KJV. It is beautifully
done. But theres no need to use it. As people have done throughout the
history of translating the Bible, churches should be okay with using a version
which translates the languages that were contemporary for Moses and John into
language that is contemporary for us today.
9. Stained glass. I can live with stained glass, stone buildings, cross-shaped
narthexes and wooden pews. In fact, all of the traditional European style churchy
architecture has both pros and cons. You should never assume your building
is necessary for the mission that God has given your congregation, but neither
will an aspect of the building normally prohibit you from fulfilling that mission.
10. Racism. I cannot live with racism. It is infinitely more offensive to
God (who made everyone in his image) than it is even to our increasingly racially
sensitive age. Assuming that we all participate in some amount of unintentional
racism, studying and preaching Scripture with an eye to this will help us and
those who hear us.
11. Infant baptism. I cannot live with infant baptism. Having said that, if
I were the pastor of the only church allowed in Mecca, maybe
then, I simply lack the authority to admit someone to the Lords Table
who has not been baptized. It is, as one said not too long ago, above
my pay-grade. I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have
learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from
which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system,
just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.
12. No formal membership. I can live with this. But, depending on the situation,
not for long! In this fallen world, sin and error will arise within the church,
which means that we must know who has the final authority for acting against
sin and error. Since the New Testament teaches that the congregation has this
final say (see Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2; Gal. 1) I have to know who belongs
to the congregation. Too, the members need to know of their own obligations,
responsibilities, and privileges. There may be cultural reasons why a church
in a non-transient, small community in which Christians are a minority could
effectively operate with only an informal membership. But except for these
very particular circumstances, Scripture and practice mandate that we have
a clear membership in order to function biblically as a church.
13. Sermons limited to 10 minutes. I can live with this. For a while. Though
it would be an ill sign of that congregations health. Or telling about
the previous pastors ministry. I would certainly like to see the churchs
appreciation of and desire for Gods preached word to grow.
14. Large and high pulpits. Though off-putting to some, I can live with this.
It symbolizes the centrality of the Word in our life together.
15. TV-studio-like acoustics. I can live with acoustics which increase the
sound from the front (a.k.a. stage) and muffle the sound of the
congregation (a.k.a. audience), but I dont want to! Everything
this communicates about the assembly is wrong. But this is how they build church
auditoriums in these highly amplified days. Natural light is gone! Video
projection is in! ARGH!! A living community of people loudly singing and hearing
each other is one of the greatest means of edification on this side of eternity.
Come to think of it, its so good that, unlike the video clip, it keeps
being used over on the other side as well!
This is just a little taste of those things that I can and cannot live with
as a pastor. Questions of Calvinism, open-air preaching, drama, dress, prophecy,
politics, having an American flag on the platform, and myriads of other matters
need prayerful and wise consideration by the pastor.
Again, my goal here is not to convince you to adopt all of my conclusions
(though Im happy to push you to think about it). Its to help you
begin thinking about the matters which arise in your situation according to
several criteria. What criteria? Here are three questions we as pastors should
always ask. First, is the matter biblical? I can live with practices
that are commanded or exampled in the New Testament church. Ill start
asking hard questions about practices that are not. You and I will give an
account to God for how we led our church. Shouldnt humility impel us
simply to stick with his playbook? Congregational singing shows up
in his playbook. Easy call to make. Things that hinder congregational singing.
Hmmm. You might want to think twice.
Second, does the matter deny or confuse the gospel? I cannot live
with things that explicitly deny the gospel, things that threaten the gospel,
or things that blur it. Admittedly, it's not always clear how big
of a threat something is to the gospel. Most people don't think polity
is something that's relevant to the gospel. I do. My point right now isn't
to convince you on this particular matter, so much as to suggest what
everyone's standard might be for what they can and cannot live with: draw your
line in between things that bring shame on the name and message of Jesus
Christ and things that do not.
Third, is the congregation ready? That is, are they mature enough to
follow where you lead? If not, you may only do more damage by quickly leading in
that direction. Truly leading an immature congregation might mean
moving very, very slowly. How many young pastors, feeling convicted of conscience
to lead immediately, do in fact fail to lead because they dont
first take the time to understand and love the ones they mean to lead!
Every answer in real life is more complicated than a few sentences an article
can communicate. I pray God will use this article to help you begin some important
conversations with some more experienced pastors who know you, your situation,
and the Bible.
Mark Dever is the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington,
DC and the author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2001).
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce
and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter
the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction,
and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link
to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above
must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © 9Marks.
Website: www.9Marks.org. Email: email@example.com. Toll Free: (888) 543-1030.