Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, The Congregation’s Duties

For context, be sure and read the first seven articles listed here.

Some inquiry must now be made regarding the spheres in which such testing must necessarily take place. Though professors and school administrators may prove valuable in the life of the pastoral ministry student, only his elders and congregation are necessary for the testing that truly matters in Scripture. Only the elders and the congregation are commanded to carry out this testing in Scripture (1Tim. 3:1-10; 1John 4:1). Jesus and the apostles nowhere give directives to any maverick Christians operating outside the purview of the local assembly to disciple these young pastors. Nor do they command impressionable, young men who desire the office of elder to seek out such mentorship. Under the right conditions, such relationships may certainly prove beneficial, particularly academic relationships, but they are by no means necessary.

The next two sections, then, will examine the two bodies responsible for the testing of a future elder: the congregation and the elders of his local church. The congregation is responsible, in the exercise of their gifts, to discern the spirit of the man they are raising up to leadership. The elders must take particular care to disciple the pastoral candidate and to lead the congregation in his testing and confirmation.

The creedal test. Congregations in America have certainly lost their mind. They have come to be seen, and to see themselves, as little more than spectators of the overly crafty, rhetorical sport of Sunday preaching. The idea that he or she might have a role in such things as examining and approving the future leaders of the universal church is unfathomable to the average congregant. After all, such quality assurance measures ought to be taken by more qualified people, right? This question, of course, assumes that the Spirit-led, Spirit-gifted, elder-guided congregant is not the most qualified person to do such work. The presuppositions behind this question are unbiblical.

Congregations are the most qualified to discern the voice of their Shepherd, and also to discern the voice of false shepherds. The German reformer, Martin Luther, wrote of the congregation’s role in examining prospective pastors: “It is the sheep who are to judge whether they teach the voice [i.e. the words] of Christ or the words of strangers.”[1] Thus, a well-trained, Spirit-led, Bible-believing congregation ought to be able to spot a theological delinquent long before its elders and deacons have the opportunity to lay hands on him for the ministry.

So, if a church is to utilize such tools as creeds, confessions, and catechisms to examine and ordain pastors, it behooves the leaders of that church to encourage the congregation to be familiar with such tools. Some pastors may go so far as to teach on the creeds and confessions in Sunday schools, Sunday evening services, or mid-week services. Using catechisms of varying degrees of difficulty in discipleship programs, and encouraging the usage of them in the home, may also improve theological discernment in the congregation. What is more, God may use this ministry to awaken some men to their own individual calling to the ministry or reveal to the church those who are natural leaders and those who are not. In other words, by discipling the body of Christ, pastoral candidates should naturally rise to the surface.

A prospective elder candidate, then, must be known as a covenant member of the local body in good standing. How can a church trust the credentials of a churchless rogue or a troublemaker? He would also be one who is sound in his doctrine and excels in his knowledge and practice of the church’s binding documents (i.e. creeds, confessions, catechisms, covenants, bylaws, etc.). It would be fairly hypocritical to expect the laity to hold to a confession to which one would not hold prospective leaders. In short, the elder candidate is first and foremost a churchman.[2]

Unfortunately, many churches today do not have such binding documents whereby their members might discern the doctrinal unity of the body. Even more devastating is the complete lack of emphasis many churches place on the importance of church membership.[3] Elders are expected to oversee and tend to the flock of God. Yet, they have no hope of carrying out this obligation without drafting a statement expressing the church’s doctrinal unity and having covenanted members of the church sign off on those minimal doctrinal commitments. Congregations, likewise, have no means by which to discern the theological misgivings of their overseers without such safeguards in place.

The character test. Perhaps the greatest detriment to the test of a ministry student’s character is the loss of a sense of community in the local church. In a culture where the standard is for one to come to church on most Sundays, but to otherwise have little more contact with one’s church, the sense of community and spiritual family is all but absent. A large part of the problem is doctrinal.

The doctrine of adoption is rarely taught in modern evangelicalism and, where it is taught, the familial aspects of it are even more rarely highlighted. As a rule, most pastors that would even deign to address the doctrine of spiritual adoption tend to only focus on its implications for the Father / child relationship. Little onus is given to its implications for the adopted child’s relationships with those who have also been adopted. God’s children are not only adopted unto Him, but are also adopted into a family of similarly adopted fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters (1Tim 5:1-2).[4] Were a pastor to go so far in his teaching of this doctrine, he might still run the danger of missing the final, and perhaps most crucial, step in the process: giving the application.

For the purpose of the present series of articles, the application is that the ministry student should be a member in good standing with a local church. He should also be actively involved with other actively involved members who understand that their relationship with one another is not a shallow, Sunday-only association. Wayne Grudem suggests that the frequent use of the term brother by the New Testament authors might indicates “the strong consciousness they had of the nature of the church as the family of God.” [5]  Their relationship is a familial one, and thus should take on a special intimacy. True character examination becomes possible in this intimate, familial environment but never apart from it.

Brothers and sisters who are brothers and sisters by natural birth are typically forced by their common situation to put up with one another and strive hard after some semblance of civility. Because siblings share parents, rooms, hand-me-down clothing, a dining-room table, a television, and the backseat of the car, they are forced to find ways to confront one another rather than avoiding one another. Through these situations, they learn something of one another’s character. In like manner, the family of God should not practice avoidance, but should seek opportunities to share their lives with one another so that they may, by natural processes, learn something of one another’s character. In this environment, character examination of prospective elders is almost an afterthought.

Here, functions like potlucks, church picnics, Friday night fellowships, small group Bible studies, phone calls, and house calls become pivotal. No one can hope to properly discern the character of an individual when they only see them once a week engaging in surface-level conversations with them averaging between five to ten minutes. The early church invited church leaders and those carrying their letters into their homes at the risk of being persecuted by the ruling authorities.[6] Yet, most Christians today will not even invite their fellow church members over for supper. To come to the point, regular interaction outside of the regular church services is fundamental to the task of testing prospective elders’ character.

The aptitude test. What the congregation sees at the church, however, is likewise fundamental. Pastoral candidates must show themselves to be gifted for the ministry, and there is no better place than the church for the prospective pastor to operate in those gifts. A pastor is to be a servant; the local church provides ample opportunities to serve. A pastor is to be a teacher; the local church ought to provide many teaching opportunities for pastoral students. A pastor is to be a preacher; pastoral candidates should then be first picked for pulpit supply. A pastor is to be an evangelist; the local church should have some sort of evangelism ministry in which he might participate. As the pastor engages in these various ministry roles, he will find that he is working alongside members of the congregation, if indeed the individual members of the congregation are operating in the gifts the Spirit has given them. Such functions, at their core, represent the image of our Trinitarian God in which we have been made.

In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul continually draws their attention back to the Trinitarian nature of God. In chapter one, he stresses the Trinitarian work of God in the salvation of His saints. In chapter two, he includes two verses that directly reference all three Persons of the Trinity (vv. 18, 22). In chapter three, he concludes the first half of his letter with a purposefully Trinitarian prayer. In chapter four, Paul takes his Trinitarian focus in a new direction; he begins to highlight the duty of the church to image forth both the diversity and the unity of God. Just as there is one Spirit (vs. 4), one Lord (vs. 5), and one God and Father of all (vs. 6), and just as these Three work toward the common goal of the glory of God, so too the church has been diversely gifted to work toward the unity of the faith (vv. 7-16):

“The idea is not mainly that of individual believers attaining to perfection but rather that of the church, made up of the whole body of believers and viewed as a single organism, reaching its full spiritual stature.” [7]

The local body being so diversely gifted to discern against tricky, crafty, and deceitful men (Eph 4:14), there is no institution more qualified to discern the abilities of those who will be the pastors of the future. Elders and deacons may be particularly qualified to teach and recognize skills necessary for ministry in pastoral candidates. However, leaders who do not take advantage of the variety of gifts that God has given to the congregation for the examination and confirmation of elders forfeit an invaluable resource.

A danger is present in this course of action, though. An immature or a rebellious congregation will always be prone to “accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires” (2Tim 4:3). A teacher could easily be promoted on sheer ability alone with little to no consideration of creed or character. Nevertheless, this danger is no cause to forsake the sacred task of the congregation to discern their teachers’ aptitude.

Many churches are quite unwise and do not rely on the Holy Spirit as they ought, but judge their elders in the flesh. Yet even Spurgeon wrote that he would rather trust the judgment of the “unwise” collective than his own in regard to his own qualifications.[8] Thus, to leave the task of confirming a man’s call to the ministry up to the elders alone or, worse still, the candidate himself is a sinful case of negligence and a practical denial of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church. The congregation must be involved in the process.[9]


[1]Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol 39: Church and Ministry I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 307.

[2]Lloyd-Jones, Preachers, 114.

[3]Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Loose connections: what’s happening to church membership?,” Christian Century 11, no. 128 (May 2011): 22.

[4]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theolgogy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 741-742.

[5]Ibid., 741.

[6]Wayne A. Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 121-122.

[7]Curtis Vaughan, Bible Study Commentary, ed. Curtis Vaughan, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 95.

[8]Spurgeon, Lectures, 32-33

[9]Lloyd-Jones, Preaching, 108-109.

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