Polity and the Doctrine of Man

From Mark Dever’s book The Message of the Old Testament:

“It is interesting to notice how our church polity reflects our doctrine of man. If you have a higher or stronger view of the fallenness of man, you will want to see authority diffused. You will not trust a polity that concentrates authority in the hands of a sinner, regardless of how rich or educated he is or who his parents are. On the other hand, if you have a lower or weaker view of depravity, and you believe that the Fall did not affect humankind so badly or is even a myth, and that people are basically good, then you will tend to feel more comfortable with a polity that concentrates power in fewer hands. This applies in politics, and this applies in churches.”

Who Is In the SBC Family?

Tom Ascol has his finger on the pulse of the SBC, and has identified what he believes are four distinct types of Southern Baptists today. I think his analysis is right on, and his commentary on the bigger picture of what’s happening in the convention right now is definitely worth a read. Here are the four types:

  1. Intolerant Calvinists—These are those who are convinced of the doctrines of grace and believe that anyone who does not agree with their views does not really believe the gospel. Therefore, they are always suspicious and often dismissive of folks who understand issues like unconditional election, particular redemption and effectual calling differently than they do and think that it is unwise at best and most likely impossible to work together with such people.
  2. Cooperative Calvinists—These are people who believe the doctrines of grace but recognize that there are other brothers and sisters in the SBC who do not agree with their understanding. They are not mad about the disagreement but believe there can be genuine cooperation on the basis of what is believed in common. They do not think that it is necessary to be a Calvinist in order to “really believe” the gospel and they acknowledge that there are good and godly people who simply disagree with some of the specific tenets of reformed soteriology. They are unwilling to compromise their convictions but do not see cooperating with gospel-believing non-Calvinists as necessitating that.
  3. Cooperative non-Calvinists—These Southern Baptists disagree with one or more points of the Calvinistic understanding of the doctrines of grace but do not believe that Calvinists are heretics or believe a “different gospel.” They are open to dialogue about their differences and willing to work with Calvinists and others who might disagree with their views as long as there is agreement on the nature of the gospel. They are not embarrassed about the Calvinistic heritage of the SBC and harbor no paternalistic attitude toward their Calvinist brethren. They are unwilling merely to tolerate Calvinists but desire to work with them in the common cause of making Christ known to the nations.
  4. Anti-Calvinists—This group genuinely believes that Calvinism is a serious threat that must be rooted out of the convention or at best, relegated to a “back of the bus” status. They seek to marginalize Southern Baptist Calvinists by actively working to block access to local churches and denominational positions. Those anti-Calvinists who are denominational employees sense a stewardship to stand against Calvinism as well as, with increasing regularity, against those cooperative non-Calvinists who embrace their Calvinist brethren as equals. They believe that by doing so they are protecting the convention.

Like Ascol, I am a type-2 Southern Baptist, which he believes is the fastest-growing group. The vast majority of our church membership probably fall into category #3, though we have our fair share of #4′s as well. I hope and pray that the coming years will see the growth of categories 2 & 3, with fewer and fewer on the fringes who are unwilling to cooperate.

I highly encourage you to read the rest of his article here.

Where Do I Fit Into the Ministry of the Church?

This is a question nearly every Christian has asked at some point, but many still haven’t found the answer. Many of us are eager and willing to serve, but how are we supposed to know where and how we can serve? Do we need special training or church programs to be able to serve?

One of the greatest books I’ve read on the nature of church ministry — which includes the personal ministry of every believer — Is The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne (my review). I just began reading it for the third time (this time with a group of godly men from several different local churches), and have been reminded just how good it is! I love its emphasis on “people work” — the ministry of one believer to another as they grow together in God’s Word and proclaim the gospel with others.

Today I’d like to share a few paragraphs from one of the opening chapters that gives a foretaste of what the type of ministry advocated in the book looks like in real life. You can preview the first two chapters in their entirety by clicking here.

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Imagine a reasonably solid Christian said to you after church one Sunday morning, “Look, I’d like to get more involved here and make a contribution, but I just feel like there’s nothing for me to do. I’m not on the ‘inside’; I don’t get asked to be on committees or lead Bible studies. What can I do?”

What would you immediately think or say? Would you start thinking of some event or program about to start that they could help with? Some job that needed doing? Some ministry that they could join or support?

This is how we are used to thinking about the involvement of church members in congregational life—in terms of jobs and roles: usher, Bible study leader, Sunday School teacher, treasurer, elder, musician, song leader, money counter, and so on. The implication of this way of thinking for congregation members is clear: if all the jobs and roles are taken, then there’s really nothing for me to do in this church. I’m reduced to being a passenger. I’ll just wait until I’m asked to ‘do something’. The implication for the pastoral staff is similar: getting people involved and active means finding a job for them to do. In fact, the church growth gurus say that giving someone a job to do within the first six months of their joining your church is vital for them to feel like they belong.

However, if the real work of God is people work—the prayerful speaking of his word by one person to another—then the jobs are never all taken. The opportunities for Christians to minister personally to others are limitless.

So you could pause, and reply to your friend, “See that guy sitting over there on his own? That’s Julie’s husband. He’s on the fringe of things here; in fact, I’m not really sure whether he’s crossed the line yet and become a Christian. How about I introduce you to him, and you arrange to have breakfast with him once a fortnight and read the Bible together? Or see that couple over there? They are both fairly recently converted, and really in need of encouragement and mentoring. Why don’t you and your wife have them over, get to know them, and read and pray together once a month? And if you still have time, and want to contribute some more, start praying for the people in your street, and then invite them all to a barbeque at your place. That’s the first step towards talking with them about the gospel, or inviting them along to something.”

Of course, there’s every chance that the person will then say, “But I don’t know how to do those things! I’m not sure I’d know what to say or where to start.”

To which you reply, “Oh that’s okay. Let’s start meeting together, and I can train you.”

Now if you’re a pastor reading this book, your reaction at this point might be something like this: “Okay, right. Now I really know these guys are living in a dream. In their fantasy world, I’m supposed to have time to meet individually with all the members of my congregation, and personally train and mentor them so they can in turn personally minister to others. Have they seen my diary? Do they have any idea of the pressure I’m under? If that’s what they mean by a mind-shift, it sounds more like a brain-explosion to me!”

Well, we haven’t seen your diary, but if it’s anything like most pastors’ diaries, we know very well the pressure you’re under. And in due course, we’ll get to the nitty-gritty of how these sorts of mind-shifts play out in the day-to-day life of real churches.

However, there is some vital biblical work to be done first. To understand the scriptural foundations for re-focusing our ministries around people rather than structures, we have to go back and re-examine our core assumptions about what God is doing in our world, how he is doing it, who he is using to do it, and what it all means for Christian discipleship and ministry.

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This really is a fantastic book! If you’d like to join us in our group discussion, we meet at Perk Up on Tuesday mornings at 6:30. Even if you can’t make it to that group, you should grab a copy. You can get it here.

Why I Love My Imperfect Church

This is an exciting week in the life of Stevens Street Baptist Church. This Sunday we will have the opportunity to call a new pastor for the first time in twenty years. The candidate will be arriving at our church this evening to begin a series of meet-and-greets with the congregation, and he’ll be preaching on Sunday.

With everything that’s going on, the church has been on my mind more than usual lately. Whenever that happens, it’s easy to criticize. Our church makes an easy target, because, like every local church, she’s imperfect. We’re a messed up congregation full of messed up people. There are some things I wish we’d do or teach differently, and people in the church sometimes aggravate me (though perhaps not as much as I probably aggravate them). It’s a family, after all, and sometimes family members get on each other’s nerves!

The thing is, intellectually I know that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” church; that every congregation has its faults. But under extra scrutiny, like Stevens Street is under right now, the flaws seem rise to the surface, and it’s more tempting than ever to become frustrated or cynical.

You know what I’ve found, though? If I pay close attention, the things I love most about my church are most apparent during times of testing, too. So this morning I thought I’d share just a few of the things I like best about our church!

  • Filled With Love — Like I said: we’re family! I love these people, and love spending time with them. My wife and children love them, and we have been loved by them. Furthermore, this is a group of people who love and serve our community in many ways. Best of all, this is a congregation marked by a love for the Lord, a love for his Word, and a love for doing His will.
  • Led With Integrity — Sure, I  have my occasional differences with the men who lead our church, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a group of men I respect more. Submission is supposed to a joy, so I am glad to be able to submit myself to leaders that I trust. Also, it may surprise you to learn that sometimes (maybe even often?) when we disagree, it turns out that I’m the one who is wrong! I am grateful to be led by men who are able and willing to provide a stern yet loving rebuke to provide me with much needed correction. They do this because they love me and desire good for me. It’s no accident that Stevens Street is such a loving church; we’ve had this love consistently modeled by those God has placed in authority over the Body, as they submit themselves to Jesus Christ its Head!
  • Strong Where I Am Weak — I’ve listed it last, but this may be the most important thing here. An honest self-evaluation reveals that the two greatest weaknesses in my personal spiritual life are probably the two greatest strengths of our congregation. I don’t pray well, or nearly enough, and I am not a very merciful or “missional” person. But Stevens Street is a praying church and a going church. Being surrounded by prayer warriors who desire to take God’s Word around the world while meeting physical and spiritual needs in our local community is a constant encouragement to me. It helps me grow in the areas where I most need growth. I’ve also found that thinking about the church in this way helps me to see the “differences” (at least the ones where I’m not boneheaded and wrong!) as opportunities to use my gifts to love and serve others. It should be no surprise to realize that perhaps Christ has made me strong where others are weak so that I have something to contribute to the growth of my fellow church members, just as they have contributed so much to my own growth.

I look very much forward to meeting our pastor candidate this weekend, and to a hopefully long and fruitful gospel ministry with him. I don’t know much about him (though I have read his book), but there are some things I know for certain. He’s going to be imperfect, and we’ll probably have a few differences, but if I see these differences as opportunities for growth and not for criticism, the end result will be a stronger personal walk with the Lord, and a stronger bond with my church family. And that’s a reason to be excited!

P.S. — Here are two things that I’ve read recently that have helped shape my thinking in this area:

Tomorrow Is the Big Day!

America is all hyped up for Super Bowl XLVI, and America’s churches are no different. It’s the one day of the year when many churches  give their congregations permission to watch football rather than come to church! Or, in increasingly many cases, people can come to church to watch football.

Of course, I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with watching the Super Bowl (or any other sporting event, for that matter), or even that there might not be ways that churches can help redeem the sports mania to bring glory to God. I would, however, like to direct your attention (whether you’re a football fan or not) to three very good articles that bring needed perspective to the Big Day.

Hey Football Fans, The Big Day Is Nearly Here Again — Michael Horton reminds us that every Sunday is the “Big Day”, because it’s the day when God invites His people to gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Whether you’ll be in front of a pulpit or a big screen TV tomorrow evening, it is absolutely essential that you never allow anything to replace the primacy of the Lord’s worship in your affections.

Sex-Trafficking at the Super Bowl — Most people don’t realize that, hidden in all the hubbub, thousands of prostitutes (an estimated 10,000 in Miami in 2010) will be transported to Indianapolis this weekend in order to meet the high demand for sex from the 100,000 football fans descending on the city. Many of these sex workers are coerced or forced against their will, and many of them are between the ages of 12 and 14. The slave trade is alive and well in the U.S. today, and the Super Bowl is one of the industry’s largest annual fundraisers. Please take a moment to pray for the victims, and read at the bottom of Justin Holcomb’s post about ways you can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.

A Public Service Announcement from C.J. Mahaney — This article is a couple years old (so you can ignore the game predictions), but it offers some good insight on how Christian viewers might watch the game for the glory of God. You may also be interested in watching Mahaney’s sermon entitled “Don’t Waste Your Sports”:

As for me and my house, we will be in church tomorrow evening, though I can’t say this is necessarily out of any particularly spiritual conviction, and I certainly don’t look down on those who are choosing to spend that time enjoying the game and fellowshiping with other believers (as many from our church will be doing). For me, the line between conviction and preference in this matter is difficult to discern. I love being with God’s people on the Lord’s Day, and it’s difficult to imagine any football game that I would ever actually want to watch more than I want to hear good preaching!*

Honestly, I have been (perhaps selfishly) thankful these last few years for our church’s cancellation of evening services on Super Bowl Sunday, as it gives me an opportunity to be a “free agent” worshiper! I love our church body at Stevens Street, but it is always an encouragement to gather with others when I have the opportunity, which, as a member of the staff, is rare.

* Disclaimer: If the Nashville Predators were playing the last game of the Stanley Cup playoffs on a Sunday, it would probably make my decision really tough. Perhaps that’s a sign of my own idolatry of hockey, but at the very least it’s one more reason not to pass judgment on those who actually enjoy football and want to watch the game tomorrow! May the Lord provide the opportunity for me to face this temptation!