Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

Does God speak?

My thesis:

God has revealed Himself commandingly and sufficiently in the written canonical word (i.e. the Bible).

It is commonplace today for Christians to accept that God speaks in ways outside of His written and authoritative Word (the sixty-six canonical books found in the Protestant Christian Bible). While all Christians recognize that God has spoken in ways outside of His written Word, particularly during the time before human authors completed the canonical books of the Bible, many Christians still expect this kind of special and personal revelation today.

Christians who expect, or at least accept, modern-day prophetic revelation from God are often called continuationists. In only rare cases do continuationists claim that these modern-day prophecies are divinely authoritative (equal to the authority of Holy Scripture), but the prophetic visions and/or dreams are also said to be in the category of revelation from God. I will attempt to provide examples of this kind of acceptance and expectation by citing some professing Christians on the matter, and I will also try to present the thinking that undergirds this nebulous position by sketching the logical assumptions at its foundation.

Ultimately, I will seek to demonstrate the logical and Scriptural problems associated with the continuationist position, and I shall argue for an outright rejection of it. In the end, I hope to concisely show that any expectation for receiving divine visions or experiencing revelatory dreams is at least awkward and at worst dangerous.

Setting the Scene

Since the Charismatic[1]movement began in the early 1900s (not becoming mainstream until the 1950s and 1960s), Christians have generally become increasingly open to the idea that God is still speaking to His people today in ways other than biblical revelation. I am the lead pastor of a First Baptist Church located in an unincorporated rural Texas town, and even among this conservative-minded Southern Baptist congregation you will find many who are quite accepting of the idea that God speaks today through visions, dreams, and other forms of special prophecy.

As far as I know, none of my congregants would affirm that any modern-day prophecies should be added to the canon of Scripture, and I am thankful for their hesitation. However, I am also confused by the apparent inconsistency in pairing these two affirmations. As I recently presented the difficulty to some of my congregants, I am utterly unable to understand how someone can receive a “word from God” that is not the “Word of God.” Yet, there are some who feel perfectly at ease with this dichotomy.

Visions of Today

Wayne Grudem, in his standard-setting systematic theological work, defines prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”[2]This essay is primarily interested in the purported experiences of dreams and visions as God’s special revelation to twentieth and twenty-first-century people. However, such dreams and visions fall into the category of prophecy since they are intended to perform as God’s special revealing mechanism to humanity – even if only one human in particular.

Grudem also groups visions under the umbrella of prophecy when he explains how Agabus’s prophecy concerning the arrest of the Apostle Paul might be best explained as an errant articulation of a divine vision.[3]Therefore, I believe it is helpful to consider the argument for modern-day prophecies as contributing to the overall support for the expectation of modern-day visions and dreams from God. Let us now consider the argument for experiencing prophecy today and the expression of prophetic practice by those who live with a contemporary expectation of dreams and/or visions.

Post-Apostolic Prophecy

If one is going to advocate for present-day prophets, those who experience divine revelation through dreams and/or visions, he or she will need to begin by demonstrating some biblical basis for them. Dr. Harwood, presenting his own contemporary openness to revelatory dreams and visions, cited several biblical examples of these prophetic experiences. Among the Apostolic examples, Harwood says “Jesus appeared to Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)… Later, God directed Paul’s ministry through a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9)… God spoke to Peter through a vision of animals lowered on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23).” Just as Harwood mentioned elsewhere in his article, these are only some of the many biblical examples of such things.[4]These examples do not prove that one should expect twenty-first-century prophets, but they do present prophetic dreams and visions as having been a method used by God to communicate with people at some time in history – namely those whose spiritual office was that of Apostle and/or prophet.

Citing a few Bible passages (such as 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and 1 Cor. 14:29-38) that speak of prophets and/or prophesying, Grudem argues that this New Testament activity is practiced consistently by simply telling something God spontaneously brought to mind.[5]In these passages we also find some instruction concerning prophets and prophecies, as they existed and operated in the context of the New Testament local church. It is from this platform that the leap is made into the present day. If there were ordinary prophets who prophesied through the medium of visions and/or dreams in the New Testament, then it is at least possible that there would be some expectation to experience the same today. However, there is still one more loose string that must be tied before this massive leap can be safely attempted.

When Old Testament prophets prophesied, their words were authoritative and binding – the imposing and dependable Word of God. Yet, as we have already established, very few (none that I know of) advocates of modern-day prophecy desire to present it as equal in authority with canonized Scripture. Harwood affirms “the need to judge any supposed vision or dream against the truths already revealed in the Bible.”[6]

Billy Graham’s staff also encourages the use of “godly counsel” and the Scriptures when filtering a contemporary prophetic vision or dream. Gudem, too, distances himself from any claim that all prophets and prophecies carry the same authority as Scripture. In fact, after attempting to demonstrate from Scripture some reasons to accept that some prophetic visions have less than binding authority, Grudem says, “prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.”[7]Grudem quoted Donald Gee, representing the Assemblies of God, in order to assist in clearing up the difficulty created by this two-tiered significance for prophecy. Gee said:

[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit…. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived quite normal lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.[8]

While the heart of such a desire for propriety is commendable, the subjectivity of this position presents an extremely open-ended experience for Christians in the present day. In short, it is like calling gluttons to address their insatiable desire for food by using common sense consumption principles and by keeping proper perspective through an awareness of the problems overeating has caused for others. If gluttons were capable of benefitting from these simple measures, then they would not now be gluttons! So too, those who expect ‘messages’ of special revelation from the Holy Spirit are in no way dissuaded from expecting more by a subtle call to an arbitrary sense of propriety.

Furthermore, error is much more likely to enter through the subjective experiences of humanity than through the study and application of Scripture. Experience has always been pitted against God’s revealed truth, and the Bible is full of examples of humans trusting their own experiential understanding rather than trusting and submitting to God’s Word. As the next section will show, people will inevitably prefer the subjective and effortless (personal prophetic revelation) to the objective and challenging (the diligent study of God’s Word).

Dreamers Dream

The staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that God speaks “primarily” through His Word, but “God may communicate through dreams or visions even today.” Of course, a caveat comes quickly behind such a statement, “but we need to carefully check any such guidance we receive with Scripture and godly counsel to be sure it is from the Lord.”[9]Billy Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and these statements from his staff are indicative of the common view among the Southern Baptist congregants that I have encountered over the last decade and across the United States.

While it can be somewhat difficult to acquire a scholarly work on the matter of contemporary visions and dreams, a more open view can be illustrated in the words of a distinctively charismatic writer. Goodwyn, a Christian Broadcasting Network producer, said, “[My] personal experience has confirmed” the notion that “dreams are the perfect way to hear from God.” She went on to say, “Through biblical study, I have found that God intends to speak to each of [His] followers in this manner.” Then Goodwyn quoted the oft-cited text for charismatics when they address this topic, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28; cf Acts 2:17). She does warn, though, “It’s important to understand that not all dreams are God-given.” Indeed, she asserts, “Dreams can also be from Satan.”[10]

These two examples concerning the expectation and nature of prophetic dreams and visions are not the same in every way, but they both provide some basis for further examination of the reasoning behind the continuationists position. I believe the following conclusion statements can be drawn from these two distinct sources above. (1) God does communicate with humans today through visions and dreams, and apart from His Word; (2) Not all visions or dreams are from God; (3) Dreams and/or visions are a personal message directly from God; (4) Subjectively, personal direct messages from God are preferable to ancient indirect ones.

First, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn affirm that visions and dreams, as special revelation from God, are for Christians today. I shall address this further below, but this is an open and direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If Christians should expect visions and dreams as a kind of supplemental revelation from God today, then the canon of Scripture is (by logical necessity) insufficient for the Christian to be completely equipped for all that God would do in and through him or her.

Second, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn also affirm that Christians can receive misleading (at best) and nefarious (at worst) visions and dreams. While Graham’s staff does not explicitly attribute erroneous visions and dreams to Satan, as Goodwyn does, they still leave room for massive delusion. Moreover, if visions and dreams are to be weighed against the full counsel of God’s Holy Word, then what real practical use is the vision or dream? If such things are intended as a fast track to knowing God’s will or God’s truth, then pouring over the Scriptures for clarity and validation nullifies the speed and ease of the supposed route.

Third, the last two suppositions, which I believe may also be inferred from an honest assessment of the declarations cited from Graham’s staff and Goodwyn, are both linked to personal subjectivity and preference. Any Christian would jump at the opportunity to receive personal divine revelation in this mortal life. Such a thing excites my interest as I consider it, even as I do not believe it is plausible. The sheer pleasure of a personal message from God, regardless of its content, is enough to keep a Christian consumed and pursuing the experience for quite some time. While personal divine revelation is an exciting notion, it is even more desirable when compared with the indirect and ancient revelation that one will find on the pages of Scripture. While I have heard no continuationist argue for pursuing visions or dreams over seeking God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, it does seem inevitable that Christians would eagerly look for the former over the latter.

If Christians adopt the position that prophetic visions and dreams are to be expected from God in the modern day, then a powerful fog of disillusionment may be blown upon Christians everywhere. How will these modern-day prophets be kept in check? Who will tell us what is the Word of God and what is not? If prophets can be wrong about some things, how can we trust anything that they say? If prophecy through visions and dreams is for today, then why is there such an inconsistency between the authority of biblical prophets and those we should expect in our present day? How can something be a ‘word fromGod’ and not the ‘Word ofGod?’ All of these questions and more create a whirlwind of uncertainty, but possibly the greatest usurpation of this charismatic confidence in present-day dreams and visions is that such a confidence presents a thinly-veiled (even if naively unintentional) attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

The Sufficiency and Authority of God’s Word

Scriptures itself is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and even the continuationists (at least the ones cited above) acknowledge that Christians should turn to the Bible to either affirm or deny the validity of a dream or vision. I believe it would be logical and wise, then, to look to the Scriptures in order to affirm or deny the validity of expecting such dreams or visions in the first place.  After all, if the dream or vision that contradicts Scripture should be jettisoned, then the expectation of dreams and visions may also be pitched overboard if the concept is understood to be divergent from the testimony of Scripture. Let us investigate some aspects of two distinct passages (for the sake of brevity we may only consider two), and then judge whether it is wise to expect any personal contemporary messages from God via dreams and/or visions.

The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage Christians who seem to have been in need of a strong and comforting reminder of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Peter wrote, “[We] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter was referring here to the text of Scripture that was “confirmed” by God in real human history – namely in the person and work of Christ. It seems that Peter was particularly referring to the Old Testament in this passage, but Peter also includes the writing of the Apostle Paul in the category of “Scriptures” just two chapters later in the same letter (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Blum writes, “In view of the Christological fulfillment and the Father’s confirmation of the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians are to study and pay careful attention to the Word of God. It will provide light in the midst of murky darkness for the Christian until the return of Christ…”[11]

This admonition to “pay careful attention to the Word of God” comes in contrast to Peter’s own vision and hearing of personal divine revelation. Just before Peter speaks of the “prophetic word more fully confirmed,” he recalls the pinnacle of his own personal experience with the incarnate Christ. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory before him and heard the voice of God from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-18), and yet Peter tells his readers to pay attention to the “prophetic word” (or written Scripture) that is better in some sense.

The sense in which the written Word of God is, in some sense, better than the incarnate Word of God is not within the scope of this brief essay. However, it is spectacularly important that we do note here what Peter has chosen to emphasize. Peter calls his readers to pay attention to the Word of God, which he deems to be better in some sense than the transfigured incarnate Christ and voice from God in heaven! This is no small matter, and we are foolish to skip over the significance of such an exhortation.

Another oft-cited passage regarding the value and function of Scripture is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his young disciple, Timothy. Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There are two things that I hope to point out in this passage that will weigh in on our discussion.

First, Scripture is unambiguously affirmed as being “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). Because the Bible is the very words of God as breathed out by Him, then such a reality has massive implications on matters of authority, trustworthiness, and so on. The doctrine of inerrancy, for example, is largely undergirded by the fact that God Himself is true and trustworthy. R.C. Sproul says, “If the Bible is the Word of God, and if God is a God of truth, then the Bible must be inerrant – not merely in some of its parts, as some modern theologians are saying, but totally, as the church for the most part has said down through the ages of its history.”[12]

The reason for bringing up authority, inerrancy, and the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture in a discussion about modern-day prophecy, which may or may not be authoritative or inerrant, is to point out an uncomfortable dichotomy. Mathison, in his book on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, argues against the Roman Catholic interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and his argument has import for this different discussion here. Mathison says, “Any word from God is by definition God-breathed whether communicated in writing or orally.”[13]This statement from Mathison gets to the point and should cause tremendous discomfort for anyone who affirms the possibility of someone receiving a dream or vision from God that is meant to be revelatory without necessarily being inerrant or authoritative.

God only reveals the truth, and the truth He reveals is always authoritative!

The second emphatic concept that I would like to point out in the passage from 2 Timothy is that the Scripture itself affirms that it is sufficient in all that a Christian needs in order to be “complete.” The idea presented in this passage is that the Christian who receives and absorbs the biblical text is fully equipped to be and do all that God would have him or her to be and to do. Because Scripture is God’s revealed Word to humanity, and because God is no fool and no deceiver, then all Christians must expect that God has revealed Himself sufficiently in His Word. To look elsewhere for further revelation or clearer revelation or more personal revelation is to cast a disparaging look upon Scripture, which is God’s only inerrant and trustworthy revelation to humanity today.

In my view, there are many well-meaning Christians that speak of dreams or visions (even promptings or intuitions) as vehicles through which Christians may receive divine revelation today. Regardless of their motivation, it seems flat against the teaching of Scripture to regard these notions as helpful or beneficial. At best, one’s openness or expectation for personal revelation through dreams or visions is out of step with God’s revelation in the Bible. At worst, any acceptance or anticipation for such things draws attention away from God’s true revelation and towards foolish error. May God give all Christians an unquenchable thirst for His Word, and may He forgive us for ever searching for Him elsewhere.

 

 

[1]Charismatics are a subcategory of evangelical Christians who emphasize the miraculous and fantastical work of God’s Holy Spirit. A particular distinguishing mark of Charismatics is the expectation of miracles, like those experienced by the early Church, especially the practice of ‘speaking in tongues.’

[2]Grudem, 1050

[3]See Grudem’s explanation of Acts 21:10-11, 1052

[4]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below.

[5]Grudem, 1054

[6]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below

[7]Grudem, 1055

[8]Grudem, 1041

[9]See full article at the website listed beside “Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?

[10]See full article at the website listed beside Goodwyn, “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.”

[11]Geisler, 48

[12]Sproul, 121

[13]Mathison, 166

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?” 2004. Billygraham.Org. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. June 1. http://billygraham.org/answer/does-god-reveal-things-through-dreams-and-visions/.

Geisler, Norman L., ed. 1980. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House.

Goodwyn, Hannah. 2015. “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.” Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored. Christian Broadcasting Network. Accessed October 1. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/perspectives/goodwyn_dreams.aspx.

Grudem, Wayne A. 2000. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Harwood, Adam. 2015. “Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams.” SBC Today. SBC Today. January 7. http://sbctoday.com/does-god-speak-today-through-visions-and-dreams/.

Mathison, Keith A. 2001. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.

Sproul, R. C. 2005. Scripture Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.

White, James. 2012. Scripture Alone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

A Summary of “What is the Gospel?” by Greg Gilbert in 22 Quotes

Greg Gilbert does a fantastic job of addressing this question (What is the Gospel?), and the book is not lengthy at all. It is my hope that this brief summary will serve as an encouragement to buy and read this book in total. Here is an overview of Gilbert’s book in the form of 22 direct quotes.

You can see and purchase this great book on Amazon by CLICKING HERE.

  1. “It is to God’s Word that we look in order to find what he has said to us about his Son Jesus and about the good news of the gospel” (26).
  2. “Approach the task of defining the main contours of the Christian gospel not by doing a word study, but by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection” (27).
  3. GOD: “First, Paul tells his readers that it is God to whom they are accountable” (28).
  4. MAN: “Second, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God” (29).
  5. CHRIST: “Third, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (30).
  6. RESPONSE: “Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation” (31).
  7. “We can see that at the heart of his proclamation of the gospel are the answers to four crucial questions: 1) Who made us, and to whom are we accountable? 2) What is our problem? In other words, are we in trouble and why? 3) What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it? 4) How do I – myself, right here, right now – how do I come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else?” (31).
  8. “Whatever else you think about the story of creation, the implications of this claim – that God created the world, and especially that God created you – are enormous” (41).
  9. “Scripture proclaims over and over that our God is a God of perfect justice and unassailable righteousness” (44).
  10. “When Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, therefore, they weren’t just violating some arbitrary command, ‘Don’t eat the fruit.’ They were doing something much sadder and much more serious. They were rejecting God’s authority over them and declaring their independence from him” (49).
  11. “Put simply, the Bible tells us that Jesus is both completely human and completely God. This is a crucial point to understand about him, for it is only the fully human, fully divine Son of God who can save us” (61).
  12. “Faith and repentance. This is what marks out those who are Christ’s people, or ‘Christians.’ In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ – and nothing else – to save him from sin and the coming judgment” (73).
  13. “Putting your faith in Christ means that you utterly renounce any other hope of being counted righteous before God” (79).
  14. “To have faith in Jesus is, at its core, to believe that he really is who he says he is – the crucified and risen King who has conquered death and sin, and who has the power to save. Now how could a person believe all that, trust in it, and rely on it, and yet at the same time say, ‘But I don’t acknowledge that you [Jesus] are King over me’?” (80).
  15. “The kingdom of God, then, simply defined, is God’s redemptive rule, reign, and authority over those redeemed by Jesus” (88).
  16. “He [Jesus] was claiming that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in him!” (88).
  17. “What this means is that many of the blessings of the kingdom are already ours” (89).
  18. “The kingdom of God is not net completed, and it will not be completed until King Jesus returns” (90).
  19. “The great hope for Christians, the thing for which we long and to which we look for strength and encouragement, is the day when our King will part the skies and return to establish his glorious kingdom, finally and forever” (91).
  20. “The way to be included in Christ’s kingdom is to come to the King, not just hailing him as a great example who shows us a better way to live, but humbly trusting him as the crucified and risen Lord who alone can release you from the sentence of death” (96).
  21. “The church is the arena in which God has chosen, above all, to showcase his wisdom and the glory of the gospel” (98).
  22. “I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners” (102).

May God help us all to know the Christ-centered and cross-centered gospel better, believe it truly, turn from sin adamantly, and share the gospel promiscuously.

What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

The Local Church is God’s plan for Evangelism!

I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.

My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.

Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).

When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.

The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.

American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.

If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.

Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.

May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.

“Elders” by Jeramie Rinne

I think this is a great resource for both aspiring elders/pastors and formally recognized ones. This book was an honest and biblical introduction to what an elder is and what an elder does, applicable to every Christian.

If a man is considering becoming an elder himself, or if he is currently serving as an elder and considering his affirmation of other elders, this book will be a great help. Also, if a church member is considering what his/her expectations ought to be regarding his/her elders, this book will be exceedingly beneficial.

Rinne doesn’t assume anything (one of the great things about this book), and he asserts early on that one of the first “elder-related” duties is to “investigate whether you should in fact be an elder, based on the Bible’s qualifications.”

He goes on to say, “Don’t assume. Even if you have served as an elder before, allow God’s Word to vet your candidacy” (pg. 18). These are shocking and (hopefully) sobering words for anyone who is considering what it means to be an elder. The Bible lays out various character qualifications (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) for those who would serve or are serving as elders, and Rinne walks through them all.

There is a conspicuous qualification for elders that is not necessarily related to a man’s character, namely the ability to teach. There is much more that an elder/pastor must do and even more that he can do, but the central focus of his task is teaching.

Summarizing the charge of pastoring (being an elder), Rinne says,

“Overseers [or elders] teach, pray, and serve so that their brothers and sisters might know Jesus more intimately, obey him more faithfully, and reflect his character more clearly, both individually and as a church family” (pg. 40).

This is the biblical job description and heartfelt desire of every godly elder/pastor who serves among a local congregation.

Rinne’s candid and biblical approach is commendable and refreshing. So much of what passes for Christian literature today is hardly recognizable as Christian. Church growth resources are pragmatic, concerned nearly entirely with strategy and systems. Against this backdrop, Rinne is a bright and beautiful light. He begins with the biblical definition and description of an elder, he continues by challenging elders to function according to the biblical mandate, and he ends with a biblical call to glorious service in Christ’s name.

In my own local church (as of July 2018), I am the only officially recognized elder. Other men are informally doing the work of elders, shepherding fellow church members, but the biblical office of elder is not clearly recognized among my congregation.

By God’s grace, we are seeing some significant growth in this area, and there are many church members who are beginning to understand the biblical teaching of what an elder is and what an elder does. I believe it may not be too much longer before we will be able to formally recognize at least a couple of other men among us as elders.

For now, I am prayerfully seeking to live out the call Rinne gives to elders throughout his book. I am teaching my people what qualifies a man to be an elder, and I am calling them to settle for nothing less (especially in me). I am seeking to know and be known by members of my congregation, though I am simply not able to know all of them as well as I can know some of them. I am striving to serve the word of God throughout the weekly activities of our congregational life, especially on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings (we do not currently have a Sunday night service).

Additionally, I am trying to call absentee members back into the fold, trying to lead with patience and kindness, and trying to be an example among the flock over which God has placed me. I do feel both the burden of pastoring and the weight of such a glorious task.

May God help me, and may He raise up many godly men to serve as elders/pastors among local churches.

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