Ecclesiology matters

In the past two months I have heard several allegations (some public and some private) about pastors who have plagiarized sermons.  The allegations also appear to be much more than allegations; some of the video evidence I’ve seen seems indisputable and indefensible.  I don’t know what motivates a pastor to take sermons that do not belong to him and preach them as if he labored over them himself.  Perhaps it is the perception that a pastor is a CEO, entrepreneur, visionary, or manager, and not a shepherd of souls.  Perhaps it is the mindset that preparation for preaching is just a task to endure so he can get to “the good stuff” of ministry (whatever that is).  It certainly seems that such pastors have forgotten that a big part of preaching and preparation for preaching is the preparation of his own soul for the event.

This year I have heard of multiple pastors who have discredited themselves morally and been compelled to leave vocational ministry.  I have observed that several of the failures have been of younger pastors of large churches.  That observation has provoked me to wonder if the men, while not technically “new converts” (1 Tim. 3:6) would have been better served if their churches had given them more time to prove the quality (or lack) of their character.

This last Sunday I taught in GBI on the topic of ecclesiology.  A question was asked about churches with unbiblical forms of church structure and leadership — “does ecclesiology matter?”

Ecclesiology matters. 

What we believe about the church and how it functions will shape what we do and how we do what we do.

This is not everything there is to say about what is important in the church.  But there are a few key principles that serve to protect and guide the church.

God has provided a plurality of elders to lead and care for the church.  The first thing Paul told Titus when he left his protégé in Crete was to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:1:5; see also Phil. 1:1).  The churches did not need one elder; they needed a plurality of elders to complement one another with differing gifts and to provide mutual accountability.  And that is exactly what God gave the church.  When authority is concentrated in only one man, or a very few number of men, the temptation to misuse that authority is significant.  Multiple elders — who all have the same authority — are a grace gift from the Lord.  Frankly, it is good for me that our associate pastor is the chairman of the elder board — in a sense, he is my “boss” and holds me accountable for my ministry responsibilities.  That we can function well in our respective roles reflects a plurality of eldership that really is working well.

God has given the elders a clear task.  While elders lead, their leadership is like Christ’s, who came in service of His people (Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:4-8).  The elders lead by serving.  And they serve by teaching, equipping, and praying.  That’s the job description:  teach, equip, and pray.  It’s really not much more complicated than that.  A pastor’s job is to know God’s Word (1 Tim. 4:13, 16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17) and defend (1 Tim. 3:15) and preach it with boldness and clarity whether it is popular or not (2 Tim. 4:1-5).  Teaching and preaching are the priority because only Scripture will change people’s lives and only Scripture will equip people to serve God.  It is this principle that drives our vision statement:  “Grace Bible Church exists to shepherd God’s people…”  Shepherding is why the church exists and shepherding is what elders do.

Some of these elders will be paid (1 Tim. 5:17-18) so they can devote all their time to caring for God’s people, and some will be unpaid and have other vocational responsibilities.  But all of them — elder, pastor, and overseer — are involved in the same task:  they are the spiritual caretakers of God’s people in a particular location.  [Aside:  in Acts 20:17, 28 Luke uses those three terms (elder, pastor/shepherd, and overseer) to refer to the same people.]  

As the elder preaches and teaches (publicly in corporate worship and privately in counseling and discipling), people will be equipped to minister to others (Eph. 4:11-13).  His job is not to do everything in the church; his task is to make sure everyone in the church is equipped to serve Christ and Christ’s church.  One of my personal joys is to say with some frequency when someone asks me a question about some aspect of our ministry, “I don’t have any idea what to do about that, but I know the person who does know…let me send you to him/her…”

And he is to pray (Acts 6:4 — I am aware that statement is made about the Apostles and not elders, but at that point the ecclesiological structure of the church was not yet firmly established and the deacons were appointed to work alongside the apostles, even as they would later be appointed to serve alongside the elders).  A pastor cares for the flock by praying for the flock.  A pastor prepares himself and a pastor finds appropriate strength and wisdom for his task when he has prayed.  It has often (rightly) been said that busyness is a poor substitute for prayer.

God has gifted the church with deacons to assist the elders. There are many possible distractions to caring for God’s people, even as the Apostles found out in Acts 6.  Those distractions are often “good” and “beneficial” responsibilities.  But they are not the best tasks and they are not the priorities of the pastor/elder.  So God provided Spirit-filled deacons (lit., “servants”) to assist in the first church with specific tasks (Acts 6:2-3).  That same provision of men is present in the contemporary church as well (1 Tim. 3:8-13).  These are not “second class” elders or “not quite ready” leaders; these are godly men that the Lord has particularly equipped to serve the church in particular ways that will benefit both the church body and the elders.

God has provided the church with qualifications to determine the fitness of elders.  Just like there are physical fitness tests for some jobs, so there are spiritual fitness tests for elders.  Not just any man will do, as an elder.  He must (continually) meet the criteria of God’s shepherd for God’s people.  In very broad terms, he must have an overall quality of character that no accusation can be made against him (1 Tim. 3:2).  He must be disciplined and exercise self-control (1 Tim. 3:2-3).  He must know and teach the Word of God effectively (1 Tim. 3:2).  His family must be “under control” (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  He must be mature in the faith (not a new convert to the faith; 1 Tim. 3:6).  He must be reputable even among unbelievers (1 Tim. 3:7).  If he doesn’t meet those qualifications, that doesn’t mean he can’t serve in God’s church, but it does mean that he can’t serve as an elder in God’s church.

There are other reasons why churches and elders and pastors fail apart from a violation of these four principles.  But if churches heed these priorities, it will go a long way to providing good care for the church, and keeping individual men from public failure.

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