A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Two Kingdoms in Luther

Read the first two posts here and here.

______________

 

 

In the previous article, we discussed Augustine’s classic work City of God as a means of demonstrating how the Church interacts with the culture in the public sphere. Now, we will examine Martin Luther’s development of Augustine’s ideas.

Much of Luther’s public theology can be examined by interacting with Luther’s 1523 essay Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. In this essay, Luther taught that the temporal authority (i.e. the civil state) exists by divine ordinance (cf. Genesis 4:14-15; 9:6), having existed since creation and having been confirmed by Moses, John the Baptist, and Christ Himself. Luther divided the human race into two groups, one belonging to the kingdom of God and the other belonging to the kingdom of the world. Luther argued that the citizens of the kingdom of God need neither law nor sword, whereas the citizens of the kingdom of this world need both. In light of this need, God has established two governments (one spiritual and one temporal). The spiritual government is for the Holy Spirit to produce righteous Christians under Christ’s rule, and the purpose of the temporal government is for restraining the wicked and non-believers by the sword.

Kingdom vs. Government

It’s important to note here that Luther introduces an important distinction between kingdom and government. The two kingdoms are mutually exclusive (reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities), but the two governments are not mutually exclusive. As Luther articulates the idea of the two governments that rule these two kingdoms, Luther makes clear that the temporal authority, which executes the legal and coercive government of the earthly kingdom, brings Christians and non-Christians under its sway. In Luther’s thought, we have a supplement to Augustine’s doctrine of the Two Cities, which David VanDrunen describes this way:

To some degree, Luther’s adding the nuance of two governments to the two kingdoms template accounts for the constructive development of Augustinian thought. For example, Luther’s two governments framework gives the two kingdoms an institutional expression – in church and state – that lurks just below the surface in the City of God but is never unambiguously expressed (Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, pp. 60).

Moreover, by means of this added nuance of the two governments, Luther taught the validity and legitimacy of Christians participating in civil government, something not clearly articulated by Augustine. Consequently, according to Luther, Christians ought to heartily embrace their roles in the civil realm as an expression of their Christian love. For Luther, public society was a forum for the expression of Christian love and duty. In continuity with the medieval tradition, Luther taught the existence of natural law, of which the Ten Commandments is the primary summary; however, Luther moved beyond the medieval tradition by stating that natural law is the source, judge, and standard of all human laws.

Vocation in Luther’s Thought

It’s important to note that Luther’s Two Kingdom approach to public theology belonged to an entire theological system built around the Reformational doctrine of sola fide. The two governments (spiritual and temporal) relate to two kinds of righteousness (the righteousness of faith and civil righteousness), each of which in turn relates to gospel and law, respectively. Faith directs us upward toward God, while love drives us outward toward our neighbor. As persons we stand before God, while we hold various offices in the world as we live before others. One important application of Luther’s public theology was his doctrine of vocation. Luther saw that non-religious vocations (such as the baker, the shoemaker, and the soldier) came to be seen as equally God-pleasing as religious vocations (such as preachers and clerics). The various callings in human society, ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical, could now be fulfilled under God and His Word, and alongside one another with equal value.

Some modern advocates have interpreted Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine as a justification for a twofold ethic for Christians, one for the spiritual government and the other for the temporal government. For example, one can find Luther saying that if a person is called to be a courageous soldier, that person must obey the summons, not as a Christian, but as a citizen subject to the state. In this view, there would be no such thing as a “Christian soldier” since the ethic of this occupation (associated with the temporary government) is distinct from Christian ethics (associated with the spiritual government). It is our contention that historical accuracy requires a more nuanced and careful analysis of Luther’s 1523 essay; in particular, it’s important to consider large sections of Luther’s teaching, which point to the integration of Christian faith and public service.

Luther’s Counsel for Princes

Consider the following discussion in Luther’s essay, in which he discusses the proper conduct of a Christian prince:

What, then, is a prince to do if he lacks the requisite wisdom and has to be guided by the jurists and the lawbooks? Answer: This is why I said that the princely estate is a perilous one. If he be not wise enough himself to master both his laws and his advisers, then the maxim of Solomon applies, ‘Woe to the land whose prince is a child’ (Eccles. 10:16). Solomon recognized this too. This is why he despaired of all law-even of that which Moses through God had prescribed for him-and of all his princes and counselors. He turned to God himself and besought him for an understanding heart to govern the people (I Kings 3:9). A prince must follow this example and proceed in fear; he must depend neither upon the dead books nor living heads, but cling solely to God, and be at him constantly, praying for a right understanding, beyond that of all books and teachers, to rule his subjects wisely. For this reason I know of no law to prescribe for a prince; instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be toward all laws, counsels, judgments, and actions. If he governs himself accordingly, God will surely grant him the ability to carry out all laws, counsels, and actions in a proper and godly way.

According to Luther, the Christian prince must govern by trusting in God, praying constantly for a right understanding found in divine wisdom that enables the implementation of human laws and counsels in a “proper and godly way”. As a side note: Notice also how Luther not only offers his counsel as to how a prince ought to rule, but even sets himself up as counsel to the prince in question. He writes: “…instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be…” Not only did Luther see that it was right and proper for a Christian to serve in public office but, in the instance that a “so-called” Christian comes to hold public office, Luther saw it necessary for him as a pastor to offer counsel to such a man. Now, one may raise the question: “What is the proper and godly way for a ruler to govern?” This “proper and godly way”, according to Luther, is by following the example of Jesus Christ. Luther continues in his essay:

First. he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every thought to making himself useful and beneficial to them; when instead of thinking, ‘The land and people belong to me, I will do what best pleases me,’ he thinks rather, ‘I belong to the land and the people, I shall do what is useful and good for them. My concern will not be how to lord it over them and dominate them, but how to protect and maintain them in peace and plenty.’ He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs. I will use my office to serve and protect them, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit and profit from my rule.’ In such manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ is to us [Phil. 2:7]; and these are the proper works of Christian love.

Throughout this portion of his essay, Luther appeals to Scripture for instruction on attitude and approach, for example, and for encouragement to rule well as a Christian prince. The same principle would naturally apply to Christian mayors, councilmen, and other Christians in political office. For Luther, “love and natural law” must guide the rule above and beyond all law books and jurists’ opinions for the Christian prince. Although love is a universal norm and love corresponds to deeds that conform to natural law, both love and natural law require the illumination of Scripture. This is not true only for Christian politicians, but for Christians in numerous other vocations. Consider the following thought from Luther

The book [Scripture] is laid in your own bosom, and it is so clear that you do not need glasses to understand Moses and the Law. Thus you are your own Bible, your own teacher, your own theologian, and your own preacher. If you are a manual laborer, you will find that the Bible has been put in your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed in them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. . . . All this is continually crying out to you: ‘Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.’

Conclusion

When one surveys Luther’s writings, the overwhelming impression is that for Luther, the Christian faith did not exist alongside public life, but came to expression and functioned within public life. Luther knew how to distinguish between the spiritual government and the temporal government, but he never separated them. Luther entered the world’s domain in the name of God with the Word of God. In this way, Luther’s public theology is thoroughly Augustinian. It is true that one cannot rule the world with the gospel, just as much as the City of Man cannot be transformed into the City of God. However, this does not mean that that Christians are permitted to ignore instruction from the Scripture, like the exhortations from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount touches a person’s heart and conscience, but from this inward life flows outward conduct so that true humanity finds expression in public life.

In our next post, we will examine how the Reformed, from Calvin to the English Particular Baptists, developed these ideas in brought their own nuances into the development of Public Theology.

A Brief History of Catechetical Instruction – Philip Schaff

“Religious instruction preparatory to admission to church membership is as old as Christianity itself, but it assumed very different shapes in different ages and countries. In the first three or four centuries (as also now on missionary ground) it always preceded baptism, and was mainly addressed to adult Jews and Gentiles. It length and method it freely adapted itself to various conditions and degrees of culture. The three thousand Jewish converts on the day of Pentecost, having already a knowledge of the Old Testament, were baptized simply on their profession of faith in Christ, after hearing the sermon of St. Peter. Men like Cornelius, the Eunuch, Apollos, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, needed but little theoretical preparation, and Cyprian and Ambrose were elected bishops even while yet catechumens. At Alexandria and elsewhere there were special catechetical schools of candidates for baptism. The basis of instruction was the traditional rule of faith or Apostles’ Creed, but there were no catechisms in our sense of the term; and even the creed which the converts professed at baptism was not committed to writing, but orally communicated as a holy secret. Public worship was accordingly divided into a missa catechumenorum for half-Christians in process of preparation for baptism, and a missa fidelium for baptized communicants or the Church proper.

“With the union of Church and State since Constantine, and the general introduction of infant baptism, catechetical instruction began to be imparted to baptized Christians, and served as a preparation for confirmation or the first communion. It consisted chiefly of the committal and explanation, (1) of the Ten Commandments, (2) of the Creed (the Apostles’ Creed in the Latin, the Nicene Creed in the Greek Church), sometimes also of the Athanasian Creed and the Te Deum; (3) of the Lord’s Prayer (Paternoster). To these were added sometimes special chapters on various sins and crimes, on the Sacraments, and prayers. Councils and faithful bishops enjoined upon parents, sponsors, and priests the duty of giving religious instruction, and catechetical manuals were prepared as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, by Kero, monk of St. Gall (about 720); Notker, of St. Gall (d. 912); Otfried, monk of Weissenbourg (d. after 870), and others. But upon the whole this duty was sadly neglected in the Middle Ages, and the people were allowed to grow up in ingnorance and superstition.  The anti-papal sects, as the Albingenses, Waldenses, and the Bohemian Brethren, paid special attention to catechetical instruction.

“The Reformers soon felt the necessity of substituting evangelical Catechisms for the traditional Catholic Catechisms, that the rising generation might grow up in the knowledge of the Scriptures and the true faith. Of all the Protestant Catechisms, those of Luther follow most closely the traditional method, but they are baptized with a new spirit” (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I: The History of Creeds, pp. 245-246).

Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, The Duties of the Elders

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

The tests mandated in Scripture are to be conducted in one particular setting: the local church. Elders are expected to have a good reputation with those outside the local body (1Tim 3:7). Nonetheless, the local body, by the leading of the word and the Spirit, has the ultimate duty of testing and approving a candidate for ministry (John 10:1-3, 16, 26-27; 1Jn 4:1-6).

Duties, unlike responsibilities, cannot be delegated. An example of this concept can be seen in the structuring of the United States military. Leaders in the military are duty bound to ensure that certain tasks and policies are upheld. They cannot abdicate or delegate these duties, but must personally fulfill them. They may, however, delegate certain responsibilities to their subordinates to ensure that the unit’s mission is accomplished in a safe and efficient manner.[1] A church might delegate some responsibilities to para-church institutions like Bible colleges and seminaries, but the moment that it abdicates its duties as they regard the ministry student, it has ceased to function in one of the most vital roles it has been given. This article will focus specifically on the duties of the elders to test and disciple elder candidates.

Discipleship of the pastoral ministry student. According to Scripture, the elders and the congregation have each been given unique gifts for this task of testing the ministerial student. Elders are uniquely qualified, if for no other reason, because they have experience in the office to which the student aspires. This is not to say that future pastors can learn nothing from mature members of the congregations, but the elders will have specific knowledge and experience of the traps of the world, the flesh, and the enemy that are unique to the office of the elder. A godly pastor, after having been faced with such pitfalls, will have already consulted Scripture and found the answers necessary for perseverance in faith, hope, and love.

As a result, it is particularly necessary for elders to have close, personal, relationships with pastoral ministry students. History abounds with examples of this type of discipleship. The Lord himself set such an example, travelling and teaching his disciples for three years before commissioning them to carry the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The apostle John recalled his intimate relationship with the Lord by referring to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Paul was close enough with Timothy and Titus to refer to them as his sons in the faith (1Tim 1:2; 2Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4).

Even the pagans in the ancient world understood the value of having and keeping close relations with their students. The teacher / student lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander is well documented. In fact, Plato was so fond of Socrates, his mentor, that he used him as a character in most of his books in order to convey his interpretation of the master’s teaching. Also of note is Cicero’s fondness of his son. Cicero’s concern for his son’s education was so important to him that he wrote his philosophical and political treatise On Duties particularly for his benefit.

Continuing in the footsteps of the Greeks and of Christ and His apostles, Athanasius and Augustine each wrote books to disciples whom they loved dearly. Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation to his protégé, Marcarius,[2] and Augustine wrote the rather lengthy tome City of God to his disciple, Marcellinus.[3] In the address line of a letter Augustine wrote to Marcellinus on another occasion, Augustine, like Paul before him, refers to his disciple as his “very dear son.”[4] Such endearments and personally addressed treatises could not have been the result of trivial, Sunday afternoon relationships. They were the result of committed relationships that resulted in an invested desire for the other party’s well-being, success, and returned affection.

In like manner, Martin Luther conducted sessions with the pastors he was in the habit of grooming called Tabletalk. He also sought to reform education in Germany so that the average person could read the Bible he had labored so rigorously to translate into the language of the people.[5] Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, was well known for having started a Bible study that ultimately splintered off and became the seed of the Anabaptist movement. Early on, however, Zwingli included his students in every aspect of his sermon preparation, demonstrating for them how to rightly handle the word of God. Charles Spurgeon was well known for taking a personal interest in investigating the ministry qualifications of every student at the Pastors’ College and requiring that they be actively involved in ministry while they were studying there.[6] Discipleship has always been a key duty of any pastor, but particularly as it regards those who are being raised up for ministry.

Spheres of discipleship. Recognition must now be given to the biblical concept of ministerial spheres. Pastors have certain spheres of duty to which they ought to give well reasoned attention. For instance, the Bible mandates that an elder “must be one who manages his own household well” (1Tim 3:4). Thus, if he is not discipling his own family, a man should not be expected to properly disciple God’s family. From there the question must be asked of whom within the church he must take a personal interest. The question is necessary if for no other reason because, if a pastor is spread too thin, he is of no good to himself, his own family, or anyone else in the church. So, pastors would be wise to take advantage of the spheres of responsibility God has already put into place.

God has given headship in the family to the husband (1Cor 11:3).[7] Thus, if there are twenty families in a church, the elders can eliminate much busy work by specifically singling out the twenty heads of households for discipleship. They can charge those men to disciple their own families and check in on them from time to time to assess their progress.

The second group to consider for this specific attention are the older ladies in the church. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul charges Titus to have the older women teach and disciple the younger women on how to lead godly lives. William Mounce suggests that Paul might be giving this instruction to Titus (Tit 2:4) in order to ensure that Titus will be able to more surely obey the command to treat “younger women as sisters in all purity” (1Tim 5:2b).[8]

All of this discipleship is for naught if pastors neglect the discipleship of the church’s next generation of leaders. It is not enough for pastors to say that they do not have time to disciple future leaders. If a pastor does not have time to disciple future leaders, with whom does he hope to share the ever-growing responsibility of discipling the rest of his flock? If a pastor does not make time to disciple leaders early on, he will eventually find that he has no time to properly disciple anyone, because he has raised up no one with whom he might share this responsibility.

The creedal test. Elders are responsible to disciple pastoral ministry students, but they are also meant to lead the congregation in their testing. Elders, due to their unique vocation, ought to have more time and more resources at their disposal for honing their theology and rooting it in a rich, historical tradition. Their libraries alone should give them a considerable advantage over the average congregant in the pursuit of acquiring sound doctrine. The elder’s special circumstance comes with a distinct obligation to ensure the theological specificity of the local church in general and future pastors in particular. The primary way in which this obligation is fulfilled is through expository preaching.

Many pastors do not even know how great a disservice they do to their flocks by neglecting their duty to preach the word. In seeking to preach all application, they inflate their congregation with baseless morality which can only ever lead to a damnable legalism or an enduring hopelessness. In seeking to preach all doctrine, they puff up their congregation with a dead orthodoxy that will often lead to an arrogant self-centeredness or to certain forms of antinomianism. The only way to avoid such extremes is to preach the word. Preach expositionally and preach theologically, for “true biblical preaching is both expository and theological in substance.”[9] By preaching the word, the people will be grounded in the theological roots of their faith and begin to manifest the practical fruits that spring from it.

As they study for such preaching, pastors will also be able to put the time-tested creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the faith to the test of Scripture. They will have the privilege of seeing for themselves whether those documents hold up against the critique of the Bible. As they prayerfully embark on this journey, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, pastors will assuredly come to a greater understanding of Christian orthodoxy, and have a more robust faith to pass on to the next generation of pastors.

Also beneficial to the cause of testing the confession of prospective pastors is the delegation of certain teaching and preaching responsibilities in the church. As the candidate studies to teach in Sunday school, to teach a Bible study, or to fill the pulpit on occasion, he will be forced to groom his theology and improve it. Often, the best way for one to learn something is to commit oneself to teaching it to others.[10] Through this process, elders also have the opportunity to observe and examine prospective elders’ exegesis, conclusions, connections, and applications of the text. Also in this process, elders will be granting congregations more opportunities to test the ministry student on the creedal front.

The character test. In regard to testing the character of the prospective elder, elders must intentionally assert themselves into his life. If the apostle Paul did not think himself to have obtained a perfect Christian maturity (Phil 3:12), how much less should elders assume the maturity of their students. Rather, if the church is expected to confess their sins to one another (Jas 5:16; 1Jn 1:8-9), all the more the elders ought to lead by example, confessing their sins to one another, and exhorting their students to confess their sins.

The implication, then, is that the elder will be working out his own salvation, mortifying his own sins, so that he is not ashamed or hypocritical when he seeks to help his student work out his salvation and mortify his own sin. Perhaps the most salient thing a pastor can do in his testing of a pastoral student’s character is to model for him the character he is to have (Phil 3:17; 2Thess 3:7, 9; 1Tim 4:12; Tit 2:7; 1Pt 5:3). Of course, no one ever set an example for someone in their absence. Therefore, it is necessary that pastors both exemplify the character they expect out of their students and be in their lives enough that they can see it.

The aptitude test. If anyone is equipped to both recognize true giftedness for the ministry and have empathy for a pastoral candidate in the early years of his formative education, it is his elders. Undoubtedly, both of these elements are necessary for the process of examination and confirmation. Pastors should know, both scripturally and experientially, what is necessary for carrying out the duties of the office and what difficulties arise in the process of carrying them out. Thus, they are uniquely qualified to spot the gifting of a particular candidate for ministry when it surfaces.

The term gifted is an intentional term that should not be brushed over. The pastoral candidate does not have innate skills endowed upon him by nature, nor does he have acquired skills mined from personal determination. Rather, his skills ought to be recognized as just what they are: gifts from God. Granted, God may instill certain gifts in men from birth, or He may cause them to undergo a series of challenges whereby they acquire these gifts, but they are nevertheless gifts that He has given. It is Christ Himself who “distributes gifts from the fullness that he himself possesses, because he has triumphed and fills all things.”[11] The moment the elder candidate begins to assume personal ownership of these gifts he runs the risk of falling prey to either pride or self-reliance or both.

Too often pastors use their skills for personal gain to the detriment of the church and the name of Christ. The elders’ goal ought to be to safeguard the church against such men. The gifts given to pastors are mighty weapons that can be used for either great good or great harm. The elders’ duties then are to aid the prospective elder in acquiring, sharpening, and properly respecting the gifts he has been given by God. As such, his gifts will be weapons used safely, honorably, and with precision to accomplish the tasks predestined for the pastoral candidate to accomplish.


[1]http://www.armystudyguide.com, “Duties, Responsibilities, And Authority Explained,” Army Study Guide, April 03, 2006, http://www.armystudyguide.com/content/army_board_study_guide_topics/duties-responsibilities-of-nco.shtml/ (accessed December 4, 2011).

[2]Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 25.

[3]Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 5.

[4]Augustine, Saint Augustine Letters – Volume III: 131-164, trans. Wilfrid Parsons (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc, 1953), 6.

[5]William F. Leonhart, “Luther’s Vision of Free Education for Family and Church” (thesis, The College at Southwestern, Fort Worth, TX, 2011), 2-3.

[6]William F. Leonhart, “Spurgeon, Education, and the Local Church” (thesis, The College at Southwestern, Fort Worth, TX, 2011), 8-9.

[7]Paige Patterson, The Troubled Triumphant Church (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 178-179.

[8]William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 270.

[9]Joel Breidenbaugh, Preaching for Bodybuilding (Bloomington: CrossBooks, 2010), 16.

[10]From the popular saying, “The best way to learn is to teach,” often attributed to Frank Oppenheimer.

[11]Vern S. Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39, no. 1 (1996): 71.

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.