Working for Healthier Churches in the Bible-belt: The “Letter Transfer”

Pastoring a church in the Bible belt has exposed me to some interesting cultural experiences. The Bible-belt is that swath of states across the southern US which are still home to many cultural Christians. Cultural Christians (those who are Christian only in a cultural sense) share several characteristics with biblical Christians (i.e. true Christians), but cultural Christianity consists of more simple routine and mindless tradition by comparison.

A biblical Christian will commonly seek to know and follow Christ according to Scripture, reading the Bible and striving to align with its teachings, even in the face of cultural opposition. But a cultural Christian will generally adhere to and promulgate the “Christian” traditions he or she has seen or heard from other professing Christians who share the same culture. For the biblical Christian the Bible is functional; its content is authoritative and prescriptive for beliefs and practices. For the cultural Christian the Bible is a sacred religious object, much more akin to a good luck charm than an authoritative text.

One cultural Christian tradition in the Bible-belt is an activity called “transferring your letter.” If you read a lot of church history, or if you’ve ever been involved in a Bible-belt church, then you may know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you don’t know what “transferring your letter” is all about, then allow me to briefly explain.

Many cultural Christians are members of local churches.

As a matter of fact, the Southern Baptist Convention may consist of at least twice as many cultural Christian church members as biblical ones, based on the most recent numbers. Most cultural Christians do not attend church very often (usually less than 3 times a year), but they still count their membership as something of value. And, for some strange reason, many Bible-belt churches are still glad to count these non-attending and non-functioning people as members.

Over time, Christians (biblical and cultural alike) will regularly want to stop being a member of one church and become a member of another. A Christian might move to a new town, he or she might want to help support a new church planting effort, or there might be another good reason for the switch. The most common reasons I’ve noticed in the Bible-belt for members wanting to leave one church for another is (1) to avoid dealing with some personal sin that may be exposed, (2) to protest some action of the old church’s leadership, or (3) an effort to gain in social standing with a new church’s members.

Frequently in the Bible-belt, when a church member wants to make that move, then he or she will request to “transfer” his or her membership “letter.” The “letter” is referring to his or her official membership, and to “transfer” the “letter” is to move his or her official membership from one church to another.

Historically, a “letter of commendation” was regularly given to church members who left a local church in good standing as they moved from one town or area to another.

The “letter” was intended as a kind of passport among like-minded churches. A new and unfamiliar church could basically know that the “letter-carrying” Christian moving into town had been a good church member elsewhere. The pastors and the members of the new church would be generally assured that he or she would likely be a good addition to their church.

Today, “transferring your letter” is more of a perfunctory act between churches who are merely shuffling members as though they are numbers on a score board.

Many churches still vote on whether or not to “approve” of a request for a “letter transfer,” but almost no church member could tell you why he or she would ever vote against such a request, and a request is almost never denied. Often, churches simply gain some and lose some, while they hope for a net increase over time.

Anecdotally, the vast majority of church members who request to “transfer a letter” today are unhealthy church members who deserve no such praise or approval. They have decided to leave their old church for some superficial (or even sinful) reason, and they quietly disappear until the old church office receives a request for a letter from some other church nearby.

Today’s “letters of commendation” often go to the least commendable among professing Christians in a community.

As a pastor, I have been observing this peculiar phenomenon among Bible-belt Christians for nearly eight years now. I believe the practice is grounded in good ecclesiology and historically worthwhile. But I also believe the practice has become a severe threat to the health of local churches and to the witness of the gospel.

While the practice may have been constructive in the past, I believe the current practice of “transferring letters” (over the last 20-50 years) is broken beyond repair. This practice has effectively devalued church membership, encouraged cultural Christianity (i.e. unbiblical or false Christianity), assured many hell-bound sinners that they have nothing to fear from God’s judgment, and usurped the role of careful pastoral consideration of those who desire to join a local church.

I believe the practice of “transferring membership letters” today makes local churches far less healthy, I believe it makes the gospel far less clear, and I believe it makes Christian discipleship far more difficult.

I urge local church pastors to stop receiving church members “by letter” of recommendation. Do the hard and necessary (and fruitful) work of getting to know people before you invite them to become new church members. Don’t rely on a “letter” to commend a stranger to your church family; get to know the stranger so that he or she will no longer be a stranger.

I urge church members to communicate directly with churches and pastors, instead of asking a new church to “request a letter” from your old church. Tell your current church members where you’re going, and tell them what church you plan to connect with when you get there. Tell your old pastor or pastors about your new church, and invite your new pastor(s) to contact the old one(s). The church and pastors you’re leaving behind will be glad to know you are being cared for by another good church, and your new church and pastors will be glad to hear about your past spiritual growth.

I urge church members to stop voting to approve the “transfer of a letter” for any member who is not leaving on commendable terms. If you are part of a church that votes on members coming in and going out, then it is your responsibility (as a church member) to participate in these votes conscientiously. If someone has been an uncharitable, divisive, selfish, and/or inactive member of your church, then he or she will likely be the same kind of member of the next church. Don’t tell a church they are getting a commendable new member when they are in fact dealing with a person who ought to be reproved instead of praised.

In short, I urge pastors and churches to treat church membership as a serious and meaningful relationship. The Bible describes what church membership is supposed to look like (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Colossians 3:1-17; Hebrews 10:23-25), and it tells us that the ultimate goal is Christian maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Bible commands Christians to love one another in real and substantial ways in the context of meaningful relationships (1 John 3:16-18), so that the whole world will see the authentic love of Christ on display (John 13:34-35).

May God help us, and may He bless our efforts to live faithfully as witnesses for Christ in this world.

What is Elder-led Congregationalism?

Elder-led congregationalism is an increasingly common polity (governing structure) among many Evangelical churches. Historically, this form of church polity was far more common, espeically among Baptist churches, but various factors contributed to its waning during the early and mid twentieth-century. Pragmatism (the unpropositional adoption of methods that work) and industry (an emphatic stress on efficiency and measurable success) became the tools of church growth, but many churches are discovering the inevitable down side of embracing such a short-sighted ministry philosophy.

What follows is a summary of what I believe is the biblical structure for leadership and membership among a local church. I believe the Bible speaks to the matter ever so much more than many church leaders and members might think. I also believe that applying biblical principles will always result in the greatest blessing from God – namely, growing Christians and Christ’s growing Kingdom – though God’s blessing may not always appear immediately or obviously in our dark and fallen world.

Defining our terms

Elders are pastors. Elders is the word most often used in the New Testament to refer to those qualified men who lead among a local church.

Congregationalism is the idea that the local church is not subject to outside governance (autonomous). Usually, the congregation bears at least some decision-making responsibility.

A congregation is the visible sum of those Christians who have agreed to unite on the basis of (1) a shared faith in and love for Jesus Christ, (2) a shared commitment to live as disciples or followers of Christ, and (3) a shared love and responsibility for one another.

Responsibility and Authority

As with any organization, the local church must operate on the basis of some understanding responsibility. Furthermore, responsibility necessarily comes with correlating authority – one can only be responsible for that which he or she has the authority or authorization to do.

In an elder-led congregational polity, the question is not which group is over the other, nor is it a matter of greater or lesser authority. In elder-led congregationalism, responsibility and authority are based on complementary biblical assignments summarized by distinct job descriptions.

The question is: Who is responsible for what?

Congregational Responsibilities

There are many tasks a church member might undertake, but these are the responsibilities Scripture lays squarely on the shoulders of every church member.

  • Attend the weekly Lord’s Day gathering (Heb. 10:24-25). Regular attendance is fundamental to church membership; it provides the context for fulfilling all other obligations.
  • Preserve the gospel (Matt. 16:13-19, cf. 18:15-20). Every church member is responsible to know the gospel and to know how what the gospel requires in the life of the church and of the individual Christian.
  • Participate in affirming gospel-believing disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, cf. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Church members affirm new Christians by giving witness to their public profession of faith (baptism). Church members ongoingly affirm one another by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper together. 
  • Participate in Members’ Meetings (1 Cor. 1:5:4-5, cf. 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Church members decide who is in and who is out of the church by voting during members’ meetings. These decisions cannot be made by proxy, nor can they be made in isolation.
  • Disciple other church members (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:12-17). Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. 
  • Share the gospel with non-members (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Because Christians have received and believed the gospel, they are ambassadors for Christ in the world.
  • Follow the recognized leaders of the church (2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 13:7, 17). Church members benefit from godly leadership and example, but they benefit most when they follow godly leaders and imitate godly examples.

Elder Responsibilities

As is the case with all church members, elders may do all sorts of tasks. But elders also have clear responsibilities spelled out in Scripture.

  • Elders bear all the same responsibilities as other church members (Acts 20:28-29). While elders do have additional responsibilities, elders are church members too.
  • Shepherd church members (Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 1:1-4). Good elders guide church members toward developing trust in Christ, toward spiritual health and growth, and toward faithfulness to the end.
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine publicly. Elders preach sermons and raise up other men to faithfully preach as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), they model Bible study and teaching through public forums and raise up other godly men to do the same (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), and they oversee every teaching outlet of the church (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28).
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine privately. As noted above, elders are responsible to personally disciple and evangelize, just like other church members (Phil. 4:8-9; Col. 3:12-17). Additionally, elders are responsible to raise up godly men who will also be able to teach, shepherd, and lead among the church (2 Tim. 2:2).
  • Lead the church with care and wisdom. Elders lead with authority in an effort to keep watch over the souls under their shepherding care (Titus 2:15; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and they oversee or direct the affairs of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).

Elder-led Congregationalism: A Description

Elder-led congregationalism best harmonizes the various and distinct responsibilities given to church members and to elders in the New Testament. Church members believe and study the gospel, take responsibility for one another, and share the gospel far and wide. Elders lead, both by instruction and by example, and elders equip church members. 

With Elder-led congregationalism, the whole church is the disciple-making organism Christ commissioned it to be. Moreover, because God has designed it so, we know that ordering ourselves and functioning in this way will lead to spiritual growth and health.

In an elder-led congregational polity, everyone has a job description, and there is no such thing as an “inactive” church member. Everyone bears responsibility for the health and unity of the church, and everyone enjoys the blessings of such things. 

Simultaneously, members’ meetings don’t get bogged down in the minutia of day-to-day administration, nor do church members become enticed toward distraction from their fundamental responsibilities.

A Personal Disclosure

The reader may be interested to know that these ideas have not been formed in isolation or a sterile classroom. I have been the senior pastor of a small and rural Southern Baptist church since August of 2014. I became pastor with most of my ecclesiological convictions already in place, but I have also benefitted greatly from the experiences of applying doctrinal convictions to everyday circumstances.

Additionally, I am thankful for those theologians and pastors who continue to write about ecclesiological issues, providing pastors like me with much food for thought. Jonathan Leeman has been an especially prolific writer on this subject, and my own article reflects the time I’ve spent chewing on his content elsewhere (such as this article on the office of church membership or this article on the benefits of biblical congregationalism).

I highly recommend the books, articles, conferences, and podcasts of 9Marks ministry. I don’t know of any other group that thinks, talks, and writes about ecclesiology with such interest, joy, and biblically-grounded arguments like the folks at 9Marks.org.

Should Churches Disobey?

Should churches in America disobey the government’s directive to avoid social gatherings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19?

The short answer is, no… but some folks might disagree with me. So, I’ll offer the following to support my answer.

First, Christian churches are assemblies governed ultimately by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Bible (which is the word of Christ) commands Christians to submit to governing authorities in all things. A couple of Scripture passages are quite clear on the subject, and I recommend that the reader look up each of the following citations in their context.

An excerpt from Romans 13:1-7 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed… Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

An excerpt from 1 Peter 2:13-17 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him… For this is the will of God…”

Of course, there are exceptions, but one should not pass by these obvious and sobering commands too quickly. If we are prone to individualism and personal autonomy (and it is highly likely that you are), then we are probably looking for exceptions to the rule far more than we are sincerely seeking to follow the rule.

Second, Christians (including local churches) should normally obey the government in all things, but there are narrow exceptions to this general rule. God’s people are to obey God by disobeying their governing authority if (and only if) their governing authority commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands. In the Bible, we have examples of both of these. 

In Exodus chapter 1, we meet two Hebrew midwives who were blessed by God for disobeying the king or pharaoh of Egypt. The pharaoh commanded Shiphrah and Puah to kill every Hebrew boy when he exited his mother’s womb (Exodus 1:16), but these women let the babies live because they feared God more than their earthly king. God had already commanded the preservation of human life (Genesis 9:5-6), and no earthly king can overturn God’s commands.

In Daniel chapter 3, we learn about three men who were preserved by God even as they disobeyed the king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was a famous Babylonian king, so revered by his people that they constructed a massive statue to be worshiped in his honor. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down before the image, they were sentence to death. God did save these men by His miraculous power, but their willingness to die before disobeying God’s command is a good and sober example to us all (Exodus 20:3-6).

In Acts chapter 4 we can read about two Apostles, Peter and John, who disobeyed their governing authority when they were forbidden to do what God commands. Peter and John were beaten by local officials for telling people about the exemplary life, the atoning death, and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. These men were even threatened with further punishment if they continued their preaching, but Peter and John refused to keep silent because God had commanded them to proclaim of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Acts 1:8). They even prayed for greater boldness to tell more people about Jesus, and God gave it to them (Acts 4:24-30).

In each of these instances, God’s people were commended for disobeying their governing authorities, but only because their governing authorities were commanding or forbidding something in outright contradiction to God’s own instructions. If an earthly government or ruler forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids, then God is to be feared and obeyed above all others.

Third, and finally, Christians and churches in America aren’t being commanded to disobey God. In our case, the federal and state governments are not singling out religious institutions, nor are they specifically forbidding churches to meet together. Instead, government officials are calling upon all Americans (and citizens of specific states in many cases) to refrain from all social gatherings for a temporary period. Furthermore, the stated purpose for the temporary order is to preserve life, and local church pastors have no reason to believe otherwise. 

Time will tell how effective this governmental strategy has been, but for now, local churches should do their best to comply with these civil requests and orders. 

In almost all instances, God’s people are to give themselves to glad submission under the authority of their earthly governors or rulers. God’s people are to entrust themselves to God, knowing that there is coming a day when God will lay all hearts bare, and He will judge all things and all people rightly.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

Must a Church Assemble?

What is a church?

This question is usually reserved for punctilious theologians or analytical pastors. Many Christians simply take it for granted that they know what a church is, often having their own local church in mind, with all its present traditions and cultural peculiarities. But this kind of thinking often creates a definition of the church that is almost entirely bound to a particular society and a limited historical moment.

I am asking a question about the essence – not merely function – of what a church is. I am asking about the essential elements of a local church, that stuff that’s always included in the ingredients, no matter the date or geography.

I believe a church is a local congregation of baptized Christians who are associated with one another by their mutual agreement to enjoy and follow Christ together.

So, yes, a church must assemble.

Some of the content in my statement above is specific to my own ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) and not essential to a universal definition of the church. What I think is essential to a universal definition of the church are the aspects of locality and congregating – a church must assemble. 

In what follows, I want to explain the necessity of physically gathering as a church by describing the meaning of a couple of important words – local congregation.

First, geographically local.

A church is a congregation of local Christians, those geographically nearby one another. Local means narrow, confined, or limited to a particular area. In order for a local church to be distinct from the universal church, it must necessarily be confined to a specific space and time. You cannot have a local church simultaneously placed in Singapore and in Seattle any more than you can have a local church simultaneously meeting on Sunday April 12, 2020 and on Sunday October 22, 1578.

Such an idea would not have been necessary to explain before the modern-day notion of a virtual presence. Some readers will immediately dismiss me as an old fuddy-duddy when I say that virtual reality simply is not reality, but there is a slew of experiences you simply cannot have virtually. You cannot virtually consummate a marriage, sustain a concussion, run a marathon, watch the sunrise, give birth to a baby, and the list goes on. 

One essential part of a local church is its geographical locality – the congregation of Christians must actually be present (really, not virtually) to call it a church in any meaningful sense.

Second, a congregation.

A church is a congregation or assembly of local Christians. It is common to use the term “church” in reference to a building or even to an institution (the Presbyterian Church), but the New Testament never uses the word “church” in such a way. The Bible clearly understands the word “church” to refer most often to a specific gathering or assembly of Christians in a particular locality (the local or visible church; see 1 Corinthians 11:18 or 2 Corinthians 11:8) and occasionally to all Christians everywhere and from all time (the universal or invisible church; see 1 Corinthians 15:9-10). 

Once again, Christians physically gathered together simultaneously in one specific location is part of the essence of what a church is.

The necessity of physically gathering is not only essential to what a church is, it’s also the basis upon which the whole life and function of the local church is built. Furthermore, to disembody the local church is to depart from the historical Christian understanding of unity between the spirit and the body, the ethereal and the physical.

A church is, by definition and by necessity, a local (physically present) congregation (gathering of Christians).

Therefore, a church must assemble. A church that doesn’t assemble is no church at all.

Third, and finally, some begging questions.

Are you saying that a church is only a church when it gathers on a Sunday? 

No, I’m not saying that. A church gathers regularly, and afterward the members disperse. Between their gatherings, members are scattered about as individuals and small groups. But these are members of the church and not the church itself. The church is what we see when the members gather.

Are you saying that a church is only a church if all the members are present?

No, I’m not saying that. It is rare for every member of a church to be present on any given Sunday, even among healthy churches that take membership seriously. Some members are going to be sick, some on vacation, some will be visiting family or friends in another part of the world, and some are homebound until death or Christ’s return. And yet, the church that intends to regularly gather the whole of her members is a church, despite the fact that some of her members are not present. 

Are you saying that church members can’t do meaningful Christian stuff anywhere besides the church house?

No, I’m not saying that. Christians can and should give time and effort to all kinds of meaningful Christian activities everyday of their lives. Christians should devote time to spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, meditation upon Scripture, confessing sin, etc.). Christians should show hospitality, both to their fellow church members and to non-Christian neighbors. Christians should intentionally disciple other Christians, helping one another follow Jesus together. Christians can and should do all sorts of good Christian activities, but we mustn’t call any of this “church,” because that’s not what this stuff is.

Are you saying that extenuating circumstances (like a worldwide pandemic) should not keep a church from physically meeting together?

No, I’m not saying that. As a matter of fact, as I type these words, I am experiencing the sorrow of having to cancel the last two Sunday morning gatherings of the church I pastor. It has been painful not to meet together, and we are not planning to meet together again on this coming Sunday morning. But we believe not meeting together for a time is one way we can express love and care for one another and for others in our community.

In conclusion…

I am grateful for all the good Christians have done and are doing in the name of Christ in the world. I believe many Christians are providing a compelling witness to the world about what it means to love Christ and to love others. May many more Christians live productive and Christ-glorifying lives.

My aim with this brief article is to touch on one aspect of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), which seems to be almost entirely unknown to many in American Evangelicalism. Christians can and should do all manner of good things in the world, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. But let’s be mindful of what we label “church.”

It may be that the temporary absence of the gathered church will stir our affections for what we are truly missing.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What is a Membership Covenant?

A membership covenant is simply a summary of the agreement between church members. Historically, membership covenants were quite common among Protestant churches, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. And many churches still use them today.

As a matter of fact, all local churches have some kind of membership covenant… even those churches who don’t have a formal status of “church member.” Written or unwritten, formal or informal, there is always some sort of basic agreement made between those gathered in the name of Christ for the purpose of public worship and edification.

Gathering in agreement and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a Christian church.

That said, many churches publish a formal membership covenant. The purposes behind such a thing are manifold, but a simple and straightforward reason to have a formal membership covenant is so that members will know what is expected of them and what they should expect of one another.

One can read the whole New Testament, searching for every “one another” command, and thus summarize the biblical obligations and privileges of church membership, but it sure is easier and clearer if we can all agree on a basic set of promises that aim at representing the essence of such things.

Membership covenants of various lengths and content have been published over the years, but I am particularly fond of one authored by J. Newton Brown. Brown’s covenant was published by the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) in 1853, and it was printed within the 1956 Baptist Hymnal because of how widely it was being used among Baptist Churches in America.

As with all membership covenants, one has to decide what to include and what to exclude. Truth be told, I think Brown’s covenant seeks to bind the conscience in ways that the Scripture does not, so I do not endorse it entirely. But there are many features that commend it.

As early as November of 1940 (though probably earlier), when First Baptist Church of Diana, TX (the church I pastor), was still called James Baptist Church, Brown’s membership covenant was formally embraced as the standing summary of members’ obligations and privileges.

The words below are a duplicate of that early Southern Baptist covenant (odd spelling included), which was adopted by those early members of FBC Diana.

Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, we do now in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.

We engage therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, and the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations. 

We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, back-biting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, and to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Saviour.

We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy of speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Saviour to secure it without delay.

We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.

Whether your church has a formal membership covenant or not, it is the privilege and obligation of every Christian to seek out intentional, meaningful, and regulated relationships with other Christians. May God bless your efforts to love Christ and to love His people by giving yourself to such relationships within a local church nearby.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

Please, Join My Church!

“My church is the best!” “Please, join my church…”

Church members and leaders can sometimes speak and act in ways that sound desperate or even arrogant. We can sometimes give the impression that our church is better than all others, and we can sometimes make it sound like we can’t survive without adding a few more members next week. Neither of these is true, and we ought to resist the temptation to think or to speak or to act either arrogantly or desperately.

Many Evangelical churches in my area of East Texas are comprised of good people, church members who want to see people trust and love Jesus and who want to see their churches grow numerically. But, often, these same church members give little thought to the ways in which their practice of church membership actually works against the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of disciples.

When Christians are distinct from non-Christians, then people understand what it means to convert to Christianity. When Christians know the gospel well and articulate it clearly, then the gospel is more accessible and understandable. And when Christians live holy and humbly in meaningful relationship with one another, then Christians spiritually grow.

In an effort to take membership more seriously, and at the risk of saying really basic things about the responsibilities of church membership, let me offer four suggestions to those church members who want to do their part.

First, prioritize church meetings (maybe your church calls these business meetings or members’ meetings).

In a congregational church (which describes most of the churches near me), lots of decisions are made in those meetings, and lots of information is publicized. You’ll be a better informed and more knowledgeable member if you attend these meetings regularly.

The most important decisions made by a church are about membership (who’s in and who’s out) and members’ meetings are usually the time and place to make those decisions. This is one of the basic functions of church membership in a congregational church, and these decisions exercise Christian muscles we need to strengthen in order to grow as Christians.

Make it a priority to be present at church meetings, and pay special attention to the discussion and votes concerning membership.

Second, listen to peoples’ conversion stories.

There aren’t many things I enjoy quite as much as I enjoy hearing someone tell me how they began following Jesus. I love every aspect of a good conversion story. I love to hear the humility of a broken and contrite heart. I love to hear gratitude for others who took the time to plant and water gospel-seed. I love to hear the joy of freedom in Christ, and I love to hear about God’s ongoing transformative work.

Do you want to know how I’m able to hear so many conversion stories? I ask! I say something like, “So, tell me how you first came to believe the gospel and follow Jesus…”

Don’t just ask if someone is a Christian… Ask them to tell you about how they were converted. And then listen! Listen for sorrow and grief over sin. Listen for gratitude and gospel investments. Listen for joy in Christ above all else, and listen for continued life-transformation as they’ve followed Christ ongoingly.

Let’s never get tired of hearing conversion stories, and let’s never grow weary of telling our own.

Third, expect slow growth.

Taking church membership seriously means (among other things) taking members in slowly. There’s no rush, and we’re more interested in getting to know and love a new person than we are in just making them a statistic.

If you are a church member, you should expect your elders or pastors to take time in getting to know those who want to join your church, and you should expect to make an effort yourself. This kind of intentional effort inevitably leads to slower growth of membership numbers, but churches who take membership seriously will often grow more steadily.

Take time to genuinely get to know and love others, and wait to see how God might slowly and steadily grow your church.

Fourth, love the church family God gives you.

At the end of the day, we all have to decide to be part of a church family, but God is the one who ultimately brings us together. God has put us right where He wants us, and He has done so for our good and for His glory.

We should treasure the fact that there are other Christians in the world who have decided to take responsibility for the care of our souls. Your fellow church members, and those church members God will add in the future, are God’s gifts to you. And God intends you to be a loving gift to them as well.

Look for ways you can show love for your fellow church members by serving them and helping them follow Jesus.

These four suggestions aren’t going to make your church grow fast, and they aren’t going to win any awards for creativity or innovation. But applying these four suggestions will indeed make you a better church member, they will help your church to be healthier, and they will probably make you more content with God’s provision… rather than stressed about how in the world you can get more people to “please, join my church!”

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What’s the difference between “Pastors” and “Elders”?

Elders are qualified, recognized, and committed men who do the work of shepherding among a particular local church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

The Short Answer

There’s no biblical difference between pastors and elders. The two terms refer to one and the same New Testament church office.

Anyone who aims to parse out some distinction between pastors and elders is creating a modern invention and placing it on top of the biblical text. There may certainly be good reasons why a local church would use different titles for various church leaders, but the only case for doing so is a pragmatic or prudent one… not a biblical one.

Now, I hope you’ll read the remainder of this article in order to weigh the merit of my rationale for making such a claim.

Defining Our Terms

In the New Testament, the most common title or label for the leading, teaching, and shepherding office of the church is “elder” (πρεσβυτερος), appearing directly at least thirteen times in the New Testament. The word “overseer” (επισκοπος) is the second most common title for the office, and it shows up at least six times.

The label “shepherd” or “pastor” (ποιμην) is used only once as a label for the New Testament teaching and leading office of the local church. Most often (fifteen times), this word appears in the Gospels, and it refers to actual shepherds (tenders of sheep) or to Jesus as the metaphorical shepherd of His people.

Almost every time the label “shepherd” or “pastor” is used in the other New Testament books (besides the Gospels), it shows up in its verbal form (ποιμαινω). In other words, in the Bible, “shepherd” or “pastor” is usually what church leaders do… it’s not what church leaders are.

However, many Evangelicals today are familiar with the term “pastor” as a label for church leaders, because this word has been used by Protestants for hundreds of years. Baptists have been especially fond of the word “pastor” because it distinguishes Baptist church leaders from those of Presbyterian or Anglican churches.

Baptist churches have also often emphasized their understanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Because all Christians are in some sense “priests” (1 Peter 2:9), Baptists refuse to acknowledge a special clergy or ministerial class of Christians.

And yet, despite the Baptist allergy to a professionalized pastoral ministry, it is quite common for Evangelicals (including Baptists) to act as though pastors are indeed separated Christian professionals. For example, most Evangelical churches in America have no unpaid pastors. Such a reality betrays the assumption that pastors are professional (or at the very least vocational) Christian teachers and leaders.

Since the Bible most often uses the term “elder” and since many wrongly assume pastors must be paid professionals, I believe it is probably helpful for Evangelicals (especially Baptists) to recover the use of the term “elder” for the pastoral office.

Describing the Officers

The two offices of the New Testament are elders and deacons. The former is an office of servant-leadership and loving instruction, and the latter is an office of selfless service. In the Bible, church leaders are always elders, and deacons always serve both the elders and the church body.

In short, elders are qualified, recognized, and committed men who do the work of shepherding among a particular local church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

Here are the various ways in which the Bible describes and/or prescribes the function and responsibilities of those who serve in the office of elder.

Elders (πρεσβυτερος) 
  • Acts 11:30 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) received material gifts from other churches in order to distribute them to the needy among their own congregation.
  • Acts 14:23 – Multiple elders (πρεσβυτερους) were “appointed” by Paul and Barnabas in “every church” in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.
  • Acts 15:1-29 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) are listed beside the Apostles as leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
  • Acts 16:4 – Elders (πρεσβυτερων) are listed beside the Apostles as having made an authoritative decision regarding the clarity and extent of the gospel.
  • Acts 20:17-38 – Paul addressed the elders (πρεσβυτερους) in Ephesus, calling them to “overseers” (’επισκοπους) of God’s “church” (’εκκλησιαν).
  • Acts 21:17-26 – “All the elders” (πρεσβυτεροι) were gathered in Jerusalem to listen to Paul’s account of God’s work through his ministry, and Paul submitted to their counsel regarding his actions in their Jewish community.
  • 1 Timothy 4:14 – A “council of elders” (πρεσβυτεριου) commissioned Timothy for the task of ministry.
  • 1 Timothy 5:17 – Elders (πρεσβυτεροι) are those who “rule” or “manage” (προεστωτες [literally ‘stand over’]), and some elders make their living by “preaching and teaching” (λογω [literally ‘word’] and διδασκαλια).
  • 1 Timothy 5:19 – Christians are to be alert to the possibility of slanderous accusations against an elder (πρεσβυτερου).
  • Titus 1:5-6 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) were appointed to churches in every town, and such appointments were necessary to put things in their appropriate order.
  • James 5:14 – The elders (πρεσβυτερους) of the church (’εκκλησιας) are to pray for ill church members.
  • 1 Peter 5:1-3 – The Apostle Peter wrote to the elders (πρεσβυτερους) among the dispersed Christians as a “fellow elder” (συμπρεσβυτερος), calling them to “exercise oversight” or “oversee” (’επισκοπουντες) the affairs of their respective congregations.
Overseer (’επισκοπος) 
  • Acts 20:17-38 – Paul says that the elders in Ephesus have been made “overseers” (’επισκοπους) in the “church” (’εκκλησιαν) by God Himself.
  • Philippians 1:1 – Paul addressed his letter to the “saints” (‘αγιοις) and the “overseers” (’επισκοποις) and the “deacons” (διακονοις) in Philippi.
  • 1 Timothy 3:1 – Paul labels the teaching and managing office in the church that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπης).
  • 1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Paul describes the qualifications for anyone who aspires to the office of “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
  • Titus 1:17 – Paul again describes the teaching and stewarding office in the church as that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
Pastor (ποιμην) 
  • Ephesians 4:10-14 – Paul says that “shepherds” (ποιμενας) are gifts from Christ to the local church.
  • 1 Peter 5:1-3 – Peter exhorted “elders” (πρεσβυτερους) to “shepherd” (ποιμενατε) the “flock of God among them.”

If one were to simply read the New Testament, without observing the use of various terms among modern Evangelicals, he or she would inevitably conclude that the leading and teaching and shepherding office of a New Testament local church is that of elder. Furthermore, he or she would also conclude that the office must be occupied by faithful and exemplary men, who would voluntarily take on the weighty task of caring for souls among a particular local church.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

Are Baptist Pastors Licensed or Ordained?

The answer is… kind of, but probably not how you think they are.

In the western world, pastors have historically been identified with other clergymen (such as priests, bishops, and the like). Clergy comes from an old word (cleric), and simply refers to someone who is commissioned for Christian ministry. The commissioning of a person to Christian ministry takes on different forms among various ecclesiastical traditions; and different ecclesiastical traditions spring from varying perspectives of polity and ministry.

Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists are part of distinct denominations among Christianity, but the first two are not merely named groups of cooperating local churches. The Presbyterian Church of America and the United Methodist Church, both claim to be one “church” with many local congregations (the same is true of the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church).

Baptist churches, on the other hand, voluntarily cooperate with other Baptist churches without any substantive oversight from outside entities. Presbyterians and Methodists (as well as Anglicans and Episcopalians) license or ordain people to ministry, according to denomination-wide standards of education, experience, and doctrinal adherence. 

A person licensed as a Presbyterian or Methodist minister may carry such a license with them from one local congregation to another, because their ministerial authority comes from a denominational entity which transcends any particular church. Likewise, the denominational entity may also revoke a minister’s license, with or without the consent of any local church to which the minister might be giving service. This polity creates a kind of ordained or licensed hierarchy of ministers within the denominational structure.

Baptists have historically distinguished themselves among Protestants by practicing congregational polity, rather than presbyterian or episcopalian polity. Congregational polity holds that each local church or congregation is autonomous– self-governed – and not under the authority of any outside body. For Baptists, Christ rules each local church by His word (the Scriptures), and each body of members is responsible to collectively submit to Christ as well as exercise His authority among themselves.

While Baptists are doggedly congregational, they also understand that Christ gives pastors as gifts to lead and to care for each local church (Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The biblical office is that of “elder” (from presbyteros– Titus 1:5) or “overseer” or “bishop” (from episkopos– 1 Tim. 3:1), but Baptists have historically used the term “pastor” (from poimēn– Eph. 4:11).

Since each Baptist church is autonomous, the collective members must affirm their own pastors, rather than have them assigned or appointed by some other authority. Baptist church members choose men of exemplary character (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) who are able to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9) and lead as model Christians (1 Tim. 4:6-16).

In some way, the members are ultimately responsible for the kind of men they affirm and the sort of teaching they support (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 3 Tim. 4:3-4), so Baptist churches have historically exercised the authority of the members by a formal vote (based on Acts 6:5 and 2 Cor. 2:6). 

For Baptists, local church autonomy does not mean that each church must isolate itself from others. Rather, Baptist churches have historically been very happy to voluntarily cooperate with one another. Baptist churches have often benefitted from the recommendations and wisdom from other Christian churches. 

One example of this kind of cooperation and benefit is observed in the common way Baptist churches today hire a new pastor. Baptist church members often invite applicants who have already been affirmed by another Christian church as qualified to serve as a pastor. In other words, they look for men who are already ordained to minister elsewhere.

It is precisely at this point that many Baptists today can be confused about what it means for someone to be ordained.

Because Baptist churches are autonomous, and because each congregation is responsible for affirming and supporting its own pastors, ordination is not (biblically speaking) something that be conferred upon a man by anyone other than the congregation he is currently serving as a pastor. But, because of the common practice among churches, Baptists have become much like their Presbyterian and Methodist brothers and sisters in the way they think about ordination. 

Baptist pastors and churches often act as though ordination to ministry is a rite of passage, placing the ordained man into a new category among all Christians everywhere (or at least among all others in their denomination). This simply is not true. It isn’t biblical, and it isn’t historically recognizable as Baptist ecclesiology or polity.

If a man has served as a pastor (or elder) in one congregation, then he may well be later recognized as a pastor (or elder) among another church. However, the office does not travel with the man. Each local church must ultimately affirm or reject any nominated man as a pastor (or elder).

So, are Baptist pastors licensed or ordained? 

Well, Baptist churches (each exercising judgment and authority as a unique gathered congregation) in line with their biblical and historical practice set men aside for pastoral ministry by affirming their character and ability to teach and lead (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-10). In this way, the local church formally recognizes God’s own gifting of these men as shepherds, who are to lead by godly example the people God has placed under their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

Personally, I can say that it has been one of my great joys in life to be affirmed as a pastor by those people who know and love me. I know and love them, and their tangible affirmation of God’s call upon my life to serve them is a priceless treasure.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What is a Pastor supposed to do?

The ministry of the word of God is the sum and substance of the work of every pastor. While many pastors and churches may argue that some other task can (or even should) supersede the pastoral preaching and teaching and modeling of God’s word, none can do so on the basis of Scripture. Therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

In our day, it appears there are generally three distinct categories on a spectrum of pastoral ministry philosophy.

Pastoral Ministry Philosophy

One idea is that a pastor is much like a self-improvement coach, whose main job is to motivate, inspire, and encourage spiritually-minded underachievers. Pastors who apply this philosophy are usually fond of highlighting personal potential and using the language of pop-psychology, and they are often quite reassuring and positive. These pastors seem to value mutual affirmation and inclusivity.

Another conceptual sketch of the pastoral role is akin to an organizational CEO. In this model of pastoral ministry, the pastor is the visionary leader with an innovative and effective strategy, which can skillfully assimilate attendees through pathways that can be noticeably illustrated on a structural flowchart. These pastors often value pragmatic efficiency and results.

The third general category of pastoral ministry philosophy perceives the ultimate responsibility of the pastor to be centered upon thinking about, teaching, and living according to the Bible. Pastors who understand themselves to be ministers of God’s word are compelled to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. These pastors also talk about the Bible when they are with others, and they make time to help other people read and think about the Bible.

The three categories I have described here are distinct from one another, but they are not separate. In fact, you’ll probably notice all three (to greater and lesser degrees) in just about any pastor you measure. Pastors should, in a sense, be like a sports coach, urging their hearer on towards personal growth and action. Pastors must also, like a business executive, manage much in a local congregation. However, a pastor’s responsibility to a local church is first-and-foremost the ministry of the word of God.

A Ministry of the Word

In Acts chapter 6, we see this idea emphasized in the division of labor among pastors/elders and deacons (though these office titles are not specifically stated there). There was a dispute about how to best administrate the distribution of resources to needy people among a congregation. The pastors/elders refused to be distracted from their primary responsibility to pray and minister the word of God, so they appointed godly men to serve in the needed administrative task. This shows a division of labor, but it does not sufficiently explain what the pastoral ministry of the word is. For an explanation of such a weighty responsibility, let’s look at a powerful charge from one minister of the word to another.

The Apostle Paul said to his younger disciple and friend,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).

I cannot think of a stronger charge. In this sobering and inspiring charge, we can account for the “why” and the “how” of a word-centered pastoral ministry.

How?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God by preaching and by readily reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience and teaching. This is an all-of-life description with emphases on patience and preparedness, and a special attention to preaching. I understand preaching to be a kind of teaching accompanied by a call to repentance, faith, and reformation.

Why?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God because Christ is present, Christ is the judge now and forevermore, and Christ is coming with the fullness of His kingdom. It is Christ’s words that judge; His words are the blessing of life and the curse of death (Jn. 5:28-29). Christ is present in His words, and all His judgments are based on His words (Jn. 14:23-24).

In the end, the words of Christ alone will last (1 Pet. 1:22-25), and this compels the minister of God’s word to speak with boldness and confidence (2 Tim. 2:15) as a shepherd of God’s sheep who is destined to meet his glorious King face to face (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

May God raise up many godly men to pastor with such a perspective and conviction.

Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.