The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Healthy Churches Need Healthy Leaders

By: Thomas F. Booher

I want to explain something that I believe to be of the utmost importance. I think that we need to understand, in layman's terms, what a healthy church really is. We need to be be able to understand the biblical view of what a church ought to be doing, what it ought not to be doing, and we also need to be aware of potential pitfalls and hindrances to healthy churches, especially the ones that often manifest themselves in our own neck of the woods. 

I am going to assume that my audience has some familiarity with Reformed theology and the Westminster Standards. Otherwise this post would be far too long because it would require answering, not so much what is a healthy church, but what is a church in general. Of course, a church is a church. If it is doing what God has called it to do, it is going to be healthy. So what has God called the church to be? 

Well, to keep the scope where it needs to be for the purpose of this article, a church needs to be faithfully involved in preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and praying that God would bless the labors of the church, and the laborers in the church. Word, prayer, and sacrament, or what is often called the ordinary means of grace. Notice WSC question 88: 

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
So if the church should be about the business of utilizing the "ordinances" of God, then it is clear that the church is to be concerned with communicating the benefits of the redemption God's people have in Christ. And how is Christ to be communicated by the church? Through word, prayer, and sacrament. 

That sounds so wonderful, so neat and tidy, doesn't it? Almost easy. But the truth is that it is not easy at all. I am a sinner. You are a sinner. The church is full of sinners. Regenerate sinners to be sure, saints even, but nonetheless, still sinners in need of greater sanctification. And so our great Confession makes clear in 25.4 that every single church, every local congregation, is to some degree more or less pure, "according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them." There's that emphasis on word, prayer, and sacrament again. Eph. 4:11ff. along with passages like Matt. 28:19 and Acts 2:41-42 make the biblical emphasis on the ordinary means of grace unmistakably clear.

Given that, what I want to focus on is simply how any local church, any body of believers who assemble together as God's people, can remain committed to faithfully teaching the Word of God, remaining steadfast in prayer, and rightly administering communion and baptism. This gets to the three marks of the church, which are the word, sacrament, and church discipline. I would recommend reading the introduction at least of Daniel Hyde's little series over at Ligonier on the marks of a true church if you haven't already, and to borrow from him and his quoting of the Belgic Confession, we see that “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin” (Belgic Confession, Article 29) and that the false church "ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry” (BC, Art. 29)."

Now I think our temptation can be (I know mine is) to think that a church is either true or false. Well, of course it is either true or false, but what we often tie in with that thinking that isn't true is that therefore a true church will always exhibit with great aplomb the ordinary means of grace and the marks of a true church. But remember, every true church is more or less pure. There is no perfect church, and there certainly is no such thing as a perfect denomination. A true church may not be so great at preaching the gospel, of clarifying free will and predestination, of administering church discipline when the one being disciplined is prominent member, of understanding how the sacraments are efficacious, and exactly why baptism should in fact be administered to children of believers (and yet the Lord's table should not until the child comes to faith). 

How then shall a healthy church remain healthy? Christ said to watch out for false prophets who come in sheep's clothing but are really savage wolves (Matt. 7:15). Paul pleaded with tears to the elders of the churches in Acts 20:28-30 to "keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will rise up and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them." The history of the early church bears out that neither Christ nor Paul were false prophets. Satan is bound, but he is still a roaring lion seeking to devour the church. 

I am trying to build to a crescendo, and that crescendo is this: we must remain steadfast, and ready to contend for the faith earnestly (Jude 3-4). Now stop. Don't look at the verses in Jude just yet. Here is a pop quiz: Is Jude saying to contend earnestly for the faith against unbelievers, the pagan philosophers and so called evolutionary scientists of today? No. He is saying to watch out for apostates, for those who are part of the church, for those who are "spots in your love feast" (Jude 12) who speak flattering words, but only please themselves. They are deceivers, self-seekers who pass themselves off as self-givers. They are clever connivers, schemers and plotters. They are quite Satanic really, and can appear as little angels while sitting in the pew. These are rich, lustful grumblers and complainers, who will flatter the pastor to get their way, then threaten to withhold their tithe money or leave the church if they don't (Jude 16-19). 

So they are all going to hell, right? Once we have our guard up, we can treat them all the same, toss them from the congregation, remove them from the roll. No, Jude says  in v. 22-23 "And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh." Also, remember Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:1ff. The Word must be preached at all times, because the congregation can get itching ears. Some of these itching ears are the ears of true apostates, false converts, spots in the love feast who need to be expunged. And yet others need to be pitied, compassion must be expressed, they must be rebuked tenderly and corrected gently (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:25). How do we know the difference? With discernment, particularly from the elders/leadership in the church, who are qualified and know how to rightly use their spiritual gifts and feel convicted and compelled to do so as part of their calling before God and to His church, His people, Christ's bride, so that she may be presented as spotless and without blemish before Him (Eph. 5:26-27).

And that comes to another matter, though an intimately related one. Qualified pastors, qualified ruling elders. They must fit the bill of Titus 1, of 1 Timothy 3. They must know the word, but they must also be godly men, but more than that, they must rule their own household well. And how is that done? Well, by the grace of God, and by, you know, actually ruling. Wearing the pants in the family. Caring enough to lay down the law, which better be the law of God, and better be the message of saving grace through Christ Jesus. For if a man is too much of a coward to wear the pants in his own family for fear of being henpecked, how much more will he fear being henpecked by the, er, sheep in the congregation? And he must not only rule, but rule well, or in other words, he must know the word of God and hold fast to it (2 Tim. 1:13-14), and be willing to preach the word in season and out of season uncompromisingly, especially when his own skin is in the game, his own neck is on the line when he does so. 

I should be tipping my hand pretty heavily now. A healthy church is a church that has healthy leadership, because if the leadership is compromised, the foundation is faulty. And if the foundation is faulty, the structure will not stand. But if the foundation is strong, the church can continue as a true church, and indeed be a healthy church. The immoral brother will be expelled if he does not repent, and received graciously and gladly when he does. The Word of God will be preached with passion and persuasion, and the rough edges of the gospel will not be rounded off. 

Too often, though, the leadership is not unified in the truth. A little leaven truly does leaven the whole lump. Even Christ had his Judas Iscariot among his twelve. Remember, you are a sinner, I am a sinner, your ruling elders are sinners, your pastor is a sinner. Sinners don't even sin in agreement. We sin in every which way, but rarely in lockstep with one another. My sinful zeal for some pet doctrine that isn't so biblical might yank me in this direction too far, and yours might yank in another direction too far, and no one in leadership has the wisdom and discernment to mediate between us, go back to Scripture, and set us on the straight path once more. Someone is sleeping with someone other than their spouse, but this someone happens to also have lots of family in the church, and if we actually practice church discipline here, it might mean a lot of people get their feelings hurt, and God forbid that ever happens. What if they actually leave over this? How will I, the pastor, then get paid? What rumors might they spread? Best not to do too much about this after all. 

Godly men can compromise in these ways. Even godly leaders can do so. Look at King David. Look at any leader not named Christ (and maybe Paul) in Scripture hard enough and you'll find inexcusable, unthinkable sin and compromise. And it always hurts the church. 

The churches will be imperfect. But what we need, and what I believe is painfully, destructively missing, are the prophets calling out into this mess, "Repent, repent!" There are no Nathan's coming to David and saying, "Thou art the man." There are no Queen Esthers (and not just because we shouldn't have woman elders) who have the boldness to go before leaders and say something daring. 

What is stifling churches from being as healthy as they could be isn't that there is sin. Of course there is going to be sin. It's what is done after the sin is committed. In other words, where is the church discipline, that third yet incredibly crucial mark of the true, healthy church? The mark of the church that incorporates both the Word of God and prayer, and likewise can deliver the soul from sin and to the lovingkindness of Christ. 

There are too many good, godly men who have been scared into silence, and it is almost always to save their own necks, and sometimes they are saving their own necks from other good and godly men. The ripple effect of this is a compromise in doctrinal convictions, a retelling of events in one's own mind to make your own compromise and lack of actions palatable to your sensibilities. It is a justification of one's own sins, a convincing of yourself that everything is okay, or at least not as bad as you might have feared, and that the bullying pastor with his bully pulpit is okay, because after all, look how much God has already used him. 

But remember, the peace and purity of the church is not, as one person I know once said on Facebook, a "zero-sum game." We don't have to balance the two out. We don't strive for more peace by letting off the gas when it comes to purity, and we don't increase purity by sighing and saying, "Well, I guess it's time to kick up a little dust, else we're going to be letting women preach and homosexuals into membership, and that's just a sin too far." No, we want 100 percent peace, and 100 percent purity, so help us God, because God commands that we love Him with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength. We know we will never achieve perfect holiness this side of heaven, and yet we also know we must strive for it because God demands that we be holy as He is holy. 

I have had far too many good and godly men and women try to tell me that there is no such thing as a blameless elder. That it is impossible, that nobody can be blameless. They were not saying this in ignorance of the qualifications of elders as laid out in Titus 1 or 1 Timothy 3, but were speaking concerning those very verses! They were basically saying that God was setting an impossible standard, one that we and apparently even He didn't really intend or expect to be met. I suppose the command for an elder to only have one wife at a time and to be faithful to her was also an impossible standard that He doesn't really expect to be kept.

You see, we can so easily begin to justify these unreasonable things, sometimes innocently and ignorantly, other times subtly and knowingly, though we wish to tell ourselves that we do not. Either way, it is bad, especially when this happens in leadership in the church, because it affects everything that makes a church healthy. It affects the word of God, whether it be teaching, preaching, personal doctrine/belief, etc., because it comprises its application to church discipline, and it also affects prayer, because now we are not praying as we ought, for we are no longer praying as righteous men. And it is the prayer of a righteous man that availeth much (Jas. 5:16).        

A healthy church will only be as healthy as its leaders. In fact, it is when I began to get a glimpse of how unhealthy the church at large really is, and particularly when I began to realize how unhealthy even the Reformed church is (particularly through my brief experience as a student at Covenant College and the aftermath of that nearly some ten years ago), that I sensed a compulsion to pursue the ministry. Because I am great and not a sinner? No. But because I felt that something needed to be done, and no one seemed to be willing to do anything about it. 

I'm still earnestly praying that that void would be filled with godly men, godly ministers who will take charge and not be afraid of their own elders or parishioners, godly elders who would not be afraid of their bigshot pastors, and godly laypersons who are not afraid to be Bereans, for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.