Gospel Issues: An Open Letter to Western Evangelicals

With a small amount of interest, I have occasionally turned my gaze on the provocative happenings in the world of Evangelicalism. Just to be fair, by a very loose definition, I would be considered an Evangelical, though I prefer the term Protestant or, even better, Reformed Baptist. Read me right, though. I’m not bashing the movement. As one whose hope is set intently on the inheritance being kept for me, which works to embolden my faith in Christ Jesus, I have a love and fervent concern for all the saints (Col. 1:3-5). However, I grow weary when exposed too long to the internet sensationalism surrounding much of Western Evangelicalism. I trust that many of our readers can relate.

Gospel Minimalism

Evangelicals, at the very least, are marked by a central concern for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By this definition of Evangelicalism, I consider myself among the fold. However, many in recent days have taken to a minimalistic practice of Evangelicalism in which Christians are encouraged to focus almost exclusively on the Gospel, with very little emphasis on other very important doctrines in the Christian faith. Within this same fold are those who, wanting to minimize all non-Gospel issues as far secondary, have taken to labeling every issue under the sun a “Gospel issue.” So, they minimize all Christian doctrine that is not the Gospel while, at the same time, broadening the Gospel so that it encompasses far more than what the Bible teaches.

This is an understandable position to take if you are a Gospel-minimalist. If all issues are unimportant, or of minimal significance, unless they touch the Gospel in some way, you must demonstrate how any issue that is important to you touches the Gospel. As a result, Gospel-minimalists seem to be bending over backward to demonstrate how their pet issues are Gospel-issues. This hermeneutical technique requires such interpretive gymnastics in order to arrive at the intended conclusions that it can easily leave onlookers’ heads reeling.

I’m not arguing that the issues in question shouldn’t come under the umbrella and influence of the Gospel. They should, and all issues in that sense are Gospel-issues. Everything for the Christian, to a certain degree, is subject to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we’re talking about race relations, the environment, gun control, taxes, family life, work, etc., etc., etc., the Gospel impacts every area of life. The problem arises when someone comes to endorse one particular solution to one of these issues—a solution that is not the direct result of their study of the Gospel—and then they claim that, because the issue itself is a “Gospel-issue,” Christians must without exception adopt the same solution to addressing the issue that they do.

Gospel-Issues or Gospel-Solutions

This line of argumentation fails to account for certain very important nuances within the Christian community. To say that racism is a Gospel-issue is not an incorrect statement. However, to say that only one approach to alleviating the church of racism is the correct “Gospel” approach is dishonest at the very least. Nor is it incorrect to say that orphans and widows are a Gospel-issue. However, to say that others don’t have a proper handle on the Gospel because they are convinced of the merits of a different solution than you is disingenuous at best.

The difference is a categorical difference. Simply because a brother in Christ has a different approach to solving the problem, which you both recognize as a problem, does not mean that he doesn’t recognize the implications the Gospel brings to bear on that issue. Rather, it means that his culture, his education and, more generally, his life experiences bring him to vastly different conclusions as to how to solve this Gospel-issue.

The issue itself is a Gospel-issue insofar as all things in the life of the Christian touch the Gospel at some point. However, the approach to solving it may not be shaped by the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel message itself often offers no practical, “how-to” solutions for the woes of society. It simply exposes them as woes in the minds and consciences of believers. The Gospel will often compel us to act without giving us the necessary guidelines on how to act in every particular instance.

Gospel Zeal

For instance, we understand that the two Great Commandments teach us to love God and love our neighbor. As a result of the regenerating work of the gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians are now enabled to recognize where we need to grow in our love for God and love for neighbor, and we are now enabled to act out of love for God and love for our neighbor. The grace of God makes us zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:11-14), but zeal without reason is foolhardy.

Christians are to temper our zeal with sound judgment. The gospel and the grace it bears emboldens Christians with a godly zeal necessary to live lives that are pleasing to our Father in heaven. However, without the tools for navigating the nuances of cultural discernment, many of us will fall into pitfalls and commit our Gospel-fueled zeal to unprofitable ends. We recognize that the Gospel emboldens us to take action and be “salt and light” in the world, so we ride off into battle without the proper weapons and armor of our warfare.

As a result, we call for action that does the opposite of what we intend. We don’t rightly understand economics, so we call for actions on the part of the government that we think help the poor when really they are the very things doing them the most harm. We don’t rightly understand the best means for preserving human life, so we call for measures to be put in place by the government that we think will minimize violent crimes and death, but those very measures make people more vulnerable to violent criminals and devalues human life. We don’t rightly understand the biblical teaching on ethnicity, so we call for measures from state and church authorities that encourage deeper divisions rather than promoting unity across ethnicities. And those are just three issues of concern.

The Gospel Hammer

Worst of all, many who promote these counter-productive solutions seek to reinforce their arguments for them by appealing to the Gospel. They (rightly) recognize that every Christian must come under the shadow of the cross when considering the issue about which they are concerned. Subsequently, they recognize that this issue touches the Gospel, in one way or another, the moment a Christian comes to consider it. Wrongly, though, they assume that their approach must be the only Gospel-centered approach to solving their issue.

This approach to addressing issues within our cultures and within our local churches has an undercurrent of gracelessness. It assumes, “If someone else’s approach to solving this Gospel-issue is different than mine, this person is not as Gospel-centered as I am.” Allow me to play the role of peacemaker, here, and call for a little more Christian charity and mercy in regard to these issues.

Simply because someone recognizes the Gospel compels us to act on an issue does not make their subsequent action necessarily right. Just because someone disagrees with your action when you were the first to point out the fact that the problem at hand is a Gospel-issue does not mean the person in question is not Gospel-centered. You don’t have the right to use the Gospel as a hammer to bash your brother in the faith simply because he endorses a different solution to the problem you both recognize. So allow me to call for a moratorium.

A Call for Gospel Grace

Let’s stop saying issues are Gospel-issues, as though not all issues should come under the authority of the cross in the Christian life. Let’s recognize that all issues to one degree or another are Gospel-issues, which means none of them are Gospel-issues in the way Western Evangelicals use (more appropriately: abuse) the term. Let’s stop telling Christians they have to endorse the exact same solutions we do, or they aren’t Gospel-centered enough. The world is more nuanced than that.

We should feel free to point out problems in our world, but then we should be humble enough to ask, “What can be done about this?” rather than shouting one another down when we have difficulty arriving at a consensus. Wasn’t it our Savior who said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”? Let’s endeavor to show one another a little more mercy. Let’s stop using the Gospel as a hammer to bash one another when we disagree on how to solve problems. Rather, let’s commit to listen to one another, pray, submit ourselves to the Gospel, educate ourselves so we can make the most informed decision possible, and commit to following our consciences in the zeal God has granted us by His grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Sins of Our Celebrities

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on the interwebs about the proper Christian response to a repentant celebrity who has admitted to heinous crimes. The general consensus among many is that if we have been forgiven by the gospel, and if the celebrity in question has been forgiven through the gospel, we too ought to forgive them as we have been forgiven. Those who would offer any contrary opinion on this matter are then accused of not understanding or “living out” the gospel in their response to these Evangelical celebrities. Many others are simply at a loss for how to respond at all, or whether or not they should. I REALLY did not want to post anything about this. I tweeted about it earlier, but at my wife’s insistence, I have agreed to write this little blurb. All I will do is seek to explain what I have already tweeted. My tweets read as follows:

“It’s neither my place to judge, nor defend, nor forgive any celebrity child molesters. I leave that to God, their church, and the victims.”

…and…

“I wonder what a price the church in the West has had to pay as a result of the celebrity culture that has infiltrated her.”

First, regarding the specific case in question (I’m not going to name names), I have been asked if I think the family handled the matter incorrectly. I don’t know all the details. From what I can tell from what I’ve been told, the family handled things fairly well, as did the local church, as did the criminal who committed the criminal act. The criminal admitted to his crimes and repented of his sins, the family reported him to the authorities, and the local church investigated the matter thoroughly. However, the police seem to have dropped the ball. Besides the police, though, I will say that I think that a lot of Evangelicals are responding in a very improper way. I believe they are responding in an improper way because, in most cases, it is not their place to respond.

There are several questions that seem appropriate here before determining to tweet, blog, comment, re-post, share, etc. Let’s get into them: handcuffed-hands-kevin-curtis

1. Am I God?

Unless you are crazy, we can pretty much agree to the answer to this one. We are not God. As such, in most cases, it is not our place to judge, redeem, forgive, defend, or punish the person in question. That was an easy one. Next question.

2. Am I the victim?

Now, I feel the need to clarify here, because many are making the perpetrator in this case out to be the victim. I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about the little girls he molested. They are the only victims here. If you are not God and you are not the victims, it is not your place to forgive this man for his crimes. It’s just not. Next question.

3. Am I a member or leader in his local church?

If you are, you probably have reason to discuss these matters when they come before the church to be dealt with, and you should probably seek the counsel of your leaders before letting your kids be alone with the man. However, blogging, tweeting, etc., should probably be out of the question.

4. Have your previously, publicly endorsed the man?

This is important. Too often in evangelicalism, pastors endorse men to their congregations and to other pastors that they know to be volatile and reckless, only to respond with utter silence when those men destroy churches and go on speaking circuits seeking to justify their sins without any true repentance. But I digress. If you have publicly endorsed this man in the past, you may feel a need to either retract your previous statements or explain why you still endorse him. However, if you’re not a nationally known mega-church, multi-site pastor, silence may still be the best answer.

5. Are you just defending him because he’s a celebrity?

You shouldn’t say anything.

6. Are you just using this situation as an ice-breaker to start conversations about the gospel?

You should probably find a better ice-breaker.

As a final note, I would just remind you that there are real victims here. To defend a man on the basis that he has been forgiven through the gospel only turns the gospel into a tool to keep victims silent. You may not realize it, but in defending this man, you may be perpetuating the stigma of hopelessness that keeps current victims from speaking out against those who are presently victimizing them. I don’t even think the man you are trying to defend would want that.

Finally, if you have celebrity idols in your life, I would encourage you to turn them over to God. If you find yourself getting overly defensive over your favorite celebrity pastor, or if you find that your favorite Christian actor or TV personality can do no wrong in your eyes, you probably have an unhealthy fixation on them. You should probably diversify your interests in these areas so that your identity is not so wrapped up with theirs. Listen to dozens of pastors instead of just four. Hold loosely to your fascination with celebrities who claim the name of Christ. If you find that you are utterly unable to do these things, these celebrities may just have become idols in your life, idols from which you need to repent.

Well, that’s all I got. I welcome discussion in the comments section. Let’s try to keep it civil.

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.

Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, The Testing of Pastoral Ministry Students

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

After having given a list of qualifications for elders, Paul writes regarding deacons, “These men must also first be tested” (1Tim 3:10a; emphasis added).  Such word choice suggests that one way a church determines whether or not an elder meets the necessary qualifications to hold such an office in the church is by way of testing.[1] Yet, if this principle is merely suggested in the above passage, it is made abundantly clear in the next. When instructing the churches on how to discern false teachers, John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1John 4:1; emphasis added). This passage is specifically addressing the act of receiving a false prophet into the assembly from elsewhere. However, one can logically deduce from John’s line of reasoning that, by not accurately testing potential elders, churches likewise risk sending false prophets out into the world.

A solemn, corporate calling. The task of the local church of testing pastoral ministry students is not one that should be taken lightly. In fear and trembling, local assemblies must go about their task of confirming a man’s calling to the ministry, knowing that a flippant endorsement of a false teacher could lead to much hardship for souls under the care of the church universal. “For there is no shortage of those who base a defense of their own wicked lives on the behavior of those who are set over them and who are their teachers.”[2]

At minimum, the potential elder must pass three types of testing at the local church level: the creedal test, the character test, and the aptitude test. There are likewise two bodies responsible for conducting these tests: the congregation and the elder body. This section examines the aforementioned types of testing, while the next two focus more specifically on the responsibilities of the congregation and the elders in conducting such tests.

The creedal test. Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms have historically served to help “the church unitedly declare what it believes, what it is to be, and how it is to be an evangelical testimony to those outside of its fellowship.”[3] The Three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) have been accepted and affirmed as a test for orthodoxy throughout church history. Other such documents have since been adopted into the faith and practice of Christian congregations the world over, such as the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the First and Second London Baptist Confessions, and the Baptist Faith and Message. “The teaching of catechisms had been long a practice of the Catholic Church. All the Protestant bodies likewise resorted to this method of instruction.”[4]

No one arrives at the Bible with a neutral, objective standard. Everyone brings to the Bible their own preconceived theology. “The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians. A good theologian is one who is instructed by God.”[5] Many great truths have been discovered through the process of doing theology. These truths have been handed down in creeds and confessions. The creeds and confessions have thus served to guard the universal church from much error. Such truths include the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Christ, the epistemology of general and special revelation, etc.

Should a man begin formulating his own doctrinal creed from a mere read of the Bible without consulting the labor of forerunners throughout church history, he would not only be ignorant of all that came before him, but arrogant in his disregard of it. It is the role of the local assembly to ensure that this type of man is not admitted into any office of leadership within the church. “Without a confession of faith the church’s evaluation of its ministers is haphazard and shallow at best; and the church will be in great danger of laying hands on novices and heretics, all because it does not measure candidates for ministry by a broad and deep standard.” [6]  Many men, however, are too proud to prostrate themselves before the cumulative wisdom of generations past, and many naive churches are all too willing to give such stubborn men a platform.

Creeds, confessions, and catechisms have historically held a high position in the teaching and guarding of the church from error. More pertinently, they have historically been used as a means of guarding the church against errors of ignorant and arrogant potential pastors. As late as the 19th century, Baptist pastors like Charles H. Spurgeon would simply assume the presence of a catechism class in the upbringing of candidates for their higher-learning institutions:

“For a man to come shuffling into a College, pretending that he holds his mind open to any form of truth, and that he is eminently receptive, but has not settled in his mind such things as whether God has an election of grace, or whether he loves his people to the end, seems to me to be a perfect monstrosity. ‘Not a novice,’ says the apostle; yet a man who has not made up his mind on such points as these, is confessedly and egregiously ‘a novice,’ and ought to be relegated to the catechism-class until he has learned the first truths of the gospel.”[7]

The character test. Head knowledge is not all that is required of pastors, though. There are qualities of character that must be observed in the life of a potential pastor if he is to be granted the office of elder. When Paul instructs Timothy as to what he must seek in an overseer, he lists skill sets as well as character traits (1Tim. 3:1-7). “Because the office of overseer is such an important position, those who fulfill that role must be of certain character—above reproach.”[8] Such traits must not merely be assumed on the part of the pastoral candidate; they must be observed.

What character qualifications should a church seek in a prospective pastor, then? Mark Dever provides a helpful, though not exhaustive, summary:

“Furthermore, as representatives of Christ, ministers have a special obligation to reflect the character of Christ. Such character will include a care for the flock, a willingness to serve, a lack of greed for money, a refusal to lord it over the flock, an exemplary life, blamelessness, being the husband of only one wife, and the ability to manage a household well. A minister is not overbearing, quick tempered, or given to much wine. And a minister should not be violent or willing to pursue dishonest gain.”[9]

This principle presents a dilemma. How might a local church hope to observe such a life in the American culture? According to a government study done in 2010, the average American adult spends nearly 10 hours a day doing personal activities (the bulk of that in sleeping), nearly 1 ½ hours eating or drinking, nearly 2 hours working around the house, ¾ an hour making purchases, nearly ¾ an hour caring for or helping others, 3 ½ hours working, ½ an hour doing educational activities, just over a ½ hour participating in community, club, or religious activities, over 5 hours watching television, surfing the internet, or being otherwise distracted, and just over a ½ hour doing other things.[10] In short, Americans are busy. With all the distraction that comes from everyday life, and the menial things to which American evangelicals can commit themselves, how might a church hope to be able to involve themselves in the life of a pastoral candidate?

The answer may not be simple, but some ideas are worth considering. Church life must become central in western culture again. As was Luther’s custom, pastors should consider visiting the homes of their churchmen regularly, encouraging and teaching them to instruct their wives and children in the way they have been commanded in Scripture. Some will need more encouragement in this regard than others. When families take their spiritual duties more seriously in the home, they inevitably take their spiritual duties in the church more seriously. After having eliminated distractions in the home so as to have more time for their family, those distractions will also be less likely to encroach upon their duties in the church body.

Once churchmen reassume their rightful roles in the home and in the church, they will once again be able to assume their proper role in the life of the pastoral candidate. If a family is hospitable enough to have their pastor to the dinner table, why not invite a pastoral ministry student to the dinner table as well? After all, the command to be hospitable is to the whole church (Rom 12:13; 1Pet 4:9). Granted, the student will not be fulfilling the same ministerial role that the pastor is expected to fulfill in these visits, but the host family will nonetheless come to better understand the man they presume to be examining. How else, after all, should they hope to truly get to know the man and render a proper assessment of him?

This solution, it must be stated, is not a universal one. Obviously, not every member of the body has been granted the gift of hospitality, nor should the pastoral student expect that he should receive a hot meal and warm conversation without having to give something in return.  The Bible calls for the minister’s family to be hospitable as well (1Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8). “Overseers must be the type of people who will gladly welcome people into their homes.”[11] Thus, the pastoral ministry student will further prove his qualification by having members of lesser acquaintance into his home.

The congregation and the prospective elder must be led and encouraged in this process by the elders and deacons of the church. An intentional elder might encourage the people from the pulpit to apply these principles and to do their part in acquiring a more intimate knowledge of the man they are examining. A prime opportunity to do so might be found on the occasions when the elders have provided the ministry student with an opportunity to preach and/or teach. These opportunities to preach and teach will naturally arise as the church seeks to discern the next set of qualifications in the man: aptitude.

The aptitude test. As well as having knowledge and character, a third trait: that of aptitude, must be present in the prospective elder. Paul does not merely suggest that overseers be able to do the tasks they have been given to do, but demands it: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1Tim. 3:2; emphasis added). As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains, though a man may be qualified to do a great many things, if he is not apt to teach and preach, he is not qualified to be a preacher.[12]

The under-shepherd, though, must not merely have a superior skill for oratory, as important as it may be. Lloyd-Jones laments, “It seems to me to be one of the tragedies of the modern Church that we tend to put ability first.”[13] The overseer must also be equipped with wisdom and people skills:

“The preacher must be a godly man. But he must also have wisdom. And not only that, he must also have patience and forbearance. This is most important in a preacher. The Apostle puts it thus: ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle to all men, apt to teach, patient’ (2Tim 2:24).”[14]

This wisdom must be apparent in his life, particularly as it regards “outsiders” (1Tim. 3:7). “In order for the whole church to be oriented to its mission and purpose, its leaders’ interaction with the authorities, with neighbors, and with employers should commend the gospel to them.”[15] Thus, skillfulness with people and with the conduct of one’s own public life must be readily observable in the life of a pastoral candidate.

Finally, the elder must be skilled in the art of humility. The pastor will be expected to exemplify Christ in all that he does and to set the example for the congregation. Just as Christ forsook His glorious abode in heaven and subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross, so that sinners would be absolved of their sin-debt before God, so too a pastor must be willing to forsake himself for the sake of the elect.[16] Christ summarized this principle, which pastors are to model for their congregations, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first” (Mark 10:31).

The pastor’s life, contrary to much that is expected in American evangelicalism, is not meant to be a life of privilege and comfort. Rather, the biblical ministry will be marked with great toil and hardship. Subsequently, the pastoral candidate should be one who has proven to be able to endure through trial and hardship with humility and contentment. “The stairway to the ministry is not a grand staircase but a back stairwell that leads down to the servants’ quarters.”[17] It follows that aptitude is key to the life of the pastor, or as Lloyd-Jones puts it, “we have got to emphasise natural intelligence and ability. If a man is to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ he must have ability.”[18]

To summarize, the prospective elder must be tested in creed, character, and ability. Anything short of such testing of the church’s future stewards will inevitably result in a weak church at best, and a heretical, grossly immoral, or spiritually dead church, at worst. It is thus imperative that the church conduct this vital task of discerning the spirits through testing.


[1]William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, ed. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 132.

[2]Augustine, On Education, trans. George Howie (South Bend: Gateway Editions, LTD, 1969), 339.

[3]Joel R. Beeke et al., Living for God’s Glory (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 19.

[4] Frederick Eby, Early Protestant Educators (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc, 1931), 87.

[5]R.C Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 25.

[6]Robert Paul Martin, introduction to 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, A Modern Exposition, by Samuel E. Waldron (Faverdale North: Evangelical Press, 2005), 20.

[7]Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 39.

[8]William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 169.

[9]Mark Dever, A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 796-797.

[10] U.S. Department of Labor, American Time Use Survey—2010 Results (Washington: U.S.D.L. Press Office, 2011),, 9, Press Release, BLS, USDL-11-0919.

[11]Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 174.

[12]D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 111.

[13]Ibid., 110.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Dever, A Theology, 797.

[16]Spurgeon, Lectures, 40.

[17] Edmund P. Clowney, Called to the Ministry (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1964), 43.

[18]Lloyd-Jones, Preaching, 111

Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, Introduction to Part Two

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

The duty of testing an elder is not one that can be fulfilled pragmatically. The church cannot assume, as the pragmatists do, “that meaning resides not in propositions, but in consequences.”[1] Were this so, parents would be validated in choosing not to spank their children. Disobedience to God’s command to spare not the rod would be justified when parents find that they have a strong-willed child who reacts negatively to such discipline rather than positively. Likewise, churches would be justified in not preaching the unadulterated word of God, because such preaching does not always make for density in the pews. In contrast with the pragmatic method, the testing of an elder must be undertaken with the understanding that Scripture itself is the very word of God, while the words and reasons of men are subject to their fallen nature.[2] To this end, elders must be tested.


[1]K. Scott Oliphint, footnote in The Defense of the Faith, by Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 28.

[2]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 83.