May God’s grace and kindness overflow to each of you who read these words. I am thinking this evening of the countless ways God has blessed me through the years. Tomorrow there will be a guest in our services whom I met around twenty five years ago. He was in Kingsville for purposes of work for a short time. He visited our services though he was Mormon by background. He was very troubled in his personal life and seeking answers. By the grace of God he came at a time and place where a people were committed to share the love of Jesus with him. He received the Lord and was baptized and spent a good deal of time with me in meetings where he could be encouraged in his faith. Then he was gone. Several months ago I heard from him for the first time in decades. I remembered him well. He told me of his firm faith in Jesus and of his marriage to a Christian lady. Tomorrow he plans to introduce me to members of his extended family who live near us. By coming and entrusting his family to my care, he has blessed me this Christmas with a great gift. We who preach and witness need to be reminded from time to time that our work makes a lasting difference. Nothing encourages us to be alert and attentive more than to know that lives are changed through our service. This is visit and event will be a special Christmas blessing for me. This gives me renewed energy to receive the next person God places in my life in need of the Savior. Perhaps I will meet that next person tomorrow.
I am often asked my opinion concerning the office of the elder as it relates to Baptist churches. First let me say that I have no quarrel with autonomous churches setting up the form of governance that they choose. If I choose not to lead the churches that I have been privileged to pastor to have elders, I assure you it will be for Scriptural reasons and not sentimental ones. The word “elder” in the Greek New Testament is “presbuteros”. It should be obvious that the Presbyterian church chooses to be elder led. The Church of Christ is also elder led due to the fact that the founders of the movement were once Presbyterian. There were those known as elders in Judaism in the New Testament times. However Paul seems to use the terms pastor, elder, and bishop interchangeably. I am of the opinion that the terms can refer to spiritual leaders such as pastors and pastoral staff. I also believe that in congregations there are elders in the sense of mature long standing believers and leaders in the church. What concerns me is turning this into an office for governance of the church. Every church that I have pastored has had those long standing mature believers (elders) whose opinions on church decisions mattered greatly. I usually identified these people soon after my arrival and discussed things with them that I wanted to lead the church to do. I valued their insights and needed their support. That is very different from designating a board of elders. It took Baptist a long time to process that deacons were ministers and not a board of directors. Surely we do not want to start that whole problem over with a board of elders.
So here is the central truth that I want to convey. There are those in any church who function as unofficial elders who are well established, wise, and looked to for leadership. However once you institutionalize that reality with official status, it is my view that you politicize the elder. Now the “office” of elder will be actively sought by those who want control. The true elder leads by his deep character, humility, and service. He does not need to be elected. His very love and service to the Lord gives him authority. An elected elder can occasionally be someone who sought the position over a period of time with an agenda in mind. Baptists for the most part have avoided the office of elder out of a conviction that the pastor is an elder and that he can work with other mature leaders to build a consensus about decisions to be made. Baptists have historically believed strongly in congregational involvement in decision making through committees or ministry teams who report back to the church. Deacons earn the right to have input in leadership through their involvement in ministry. A good pastor wants to know the thoughts of faithful deacons about important decisions that must be made. If a group of official elders takes away or modifies the leadership of the pastor or the input of the congregation, then in my view a church becomes something other that what baptist churches have historically been.
My final answer then is that I do not favor the institution of elders as an office. In fact, when I am asked to lead Crestview to sponsor a new church start, one of the first questions that I ask is about governance. If I am told that the form of governance will be an elder system, then I decline to sponsor the work. I have no quarrel with any church choosing the governance they want, but I reserve the right to favor the historical model that Baptists have followed. I still believe that the pastor needs to work directly with the people. I believe a wise pastor will seek to preserve unity and consult with his leaders. In my own experience, I have noted that with official elders there can be a tendency for the pastor to look to the elders for direction to the exclusion of the church. For me this is not the best model for advancing the Kingdom.
Most people are familiar with the Reformation. We have recently passed the anniversary of Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing ninety five theses to the door of the University Chapel in Wittenberg. What is not so well known is that all over Europe a group of reformers clamored for a complete reformation and return to a biblical model of Christianity. They called for a regenerate church who knew and understood the New Birth. They insisted that believer’s baptism was the biblical model. They had no patience with centralized control of churches, but had varying ideas about local autonomy. They not only believed the bible, but believed that it contained a model for the form and function of the church. It was out of this Radical Reformation that Baptists eventually arose. Many of these ideas had been shared through the centuries but were suppressed by a church reinforced by the state. Thousands upon thousands were put to death for daring to challenge the establishment. Even during the Radical Reformation thousands died through persecution and religious wars. Some would say that this was all unnecessary. Anyone would hope that freedom of conscience would be allowed at any time and in any place. However, tyrants cannot endure the idea that people should be able to think for themselves. This is true in governments and it is also true in churches. One of my modern heroes has a saying he often invokes. He is Ravi Zacharias, and his saying is “Let my people think.”
Amen and amen!
Pastoring churches may be one of the most difficult jobs that exists. I have been reading some blogs and articles recently about pastor’s who were under so much pressure that their marriages were harmed, their children abandoned church, their health was destroyed, and they had nervous breakdowns. I have seen the same kinds of things happen to members of church staffs. There are so many toxic churches out there that treat those who serve them like hirelings and do not respect their calling or their gifts. I am not talking about those who fail morally and have to leave their posts. I am talking about men and women of integrity and devotion who just don’t suit those that they serve. I am convinced that God will judge those who harm his servants. In these four decades, I have watched those who attacked me experience numerous calamities. Some died suddenly and unexpectedly. Others experienced embarrassing and humiliating scandals. This always left me wondering if perhaps God was not disciplining those who would harm his church or harm those who he had placed in leadership. Psalm 105:15 says “Do not touch my anointed ones. Do my prophets no harm.” This is a word of warning from God. It has meaning and should be considered by those who simply don’t like a given servant of the Lord or consider his or her gifts to be weak. God will call to account those who harm his faithful servants. He need not hurry. They have nowhere to hide.
Now that I have your attention. Let me say that my journey has been very positive. I have never had a church try to push me out of leadership. I have had a time when I thought I might leave because of division that was occurring as people adjusted to my leadership style, but God graciously showed me his power to bring unity and healing. Most of my experiences with the things I am referring to in this blog have occurred in the lives of staff members who have served with me. I have suffered a great deal because of the pain that humble and faithful people have had to endure. Neither I, nor any staff member with whom I have served, are perfect, but the same could be said for any member of any church. If there is one lesson that I wish I could teach lay people, it is that you can actually help people grow and succeed by loving and praying for them. God’s servants need encouragement. When loving people, approach a servant and express a need or desire, true servants of the Lord consider it and seek to meet needs. When critics come and bring their judgements, there is the more likely response of self defense.
Let me close on a note of thanksgiving. Thank you Lord that you have given me so many wonderful people to serve. Thank you that most of my critics have loved me and helped me to grow. Thank you that my family has not been harmed by the pressure like so many have experienced. Thank you that you have allowed me to serve churches that have grown and flourished in all kinds of environments. I gladly confess that I am no more worthy than others who have suffered greatly. I know that the blessings of these four decades and more are another expression of your amazing grace.
One of my all time favorite sayings is “Those who plant trees love others besides themselves.” This old saying speaks to the fact that many times the person planting the tree does not live to see it grow to maturity. Coming generations will know the luxuriant shade and cool resting place provided by people often long forgotten or unknown to those blessed by their expense and effort.
Building places for worship and discipleship are even greater expressions of love for the coming generations. If you want to invest in the future and vitality of the work of God in a given location, you should try to provide adequate and beautiful space for that work to be done. A spiritual heritage inevitably involves providing structures that are conducive to the vitality of a given congregation. This must never be done apart from building people up in the faith. I know from experience that a faithful investment over a period of time yields a tremendous harvest not only in the location where the ministry is done, but quite literally around the world. Some may piously suggest that buildings do matter so much after all, but a careful reading of the Scriptures reveal otherwise. The first century church soon grew to the place where houses of worship sprang up around the world. I have stood in the ruins and in the halls of worship of some of those great structures and contemplated the message they still send forth of the deep impact of Jesus upon this world. God said through Haggai the prophet, “Build the house that I may take pleasure in it and be honored.” (Haggai 1:8)
I say “amen”.