How NOT to Leave a Church

Here’s an article that I’ve been wanting to write for years, but there’s never seemed to be a good time to do so because I always felt like someone who has left the church recently might think I’m talking about them.  But I’ve come to realize that I’ll never be able to write this article if I continue to worry like this because there’s always people coming to and leaving the church.

DISCLAIMER: So, if you’re reading this and feel like I’m targeting you, then please understand that I have no one in particular in mind.

As a person who has grown up in the church and has now pastored for nearly ten years, I’ve heard a lot of people give their reasons for leaving the church.  Unfortunately, most of the reasons have been, what I would deem, unbiblical.  Here’s my top eight.  If you have heard some different ones, feel free to leave a comment.

1.  “It’s nothing personal.”  This one I’ve heard in combination with some of the other reasons.  I don’t think a person who says this really grasps what the church is.  The church is God’s chosen people who has been set apart by His grace and redeemed by Jesus.  As such, the church is God’s family that loves and serves one another.  Therefore, leaving a church, even for biblical reasons, is a deeply personal thing.

2.  “I’m not mad at anybody.”  This one I’ve heard several times.  Most of the times it was in months following an argument or disagreement with another church member(s).  Seeing it in others and dealing with my own anger at times, I’ve found that the “I’m not mad” reason is really just a way to make us feel better about ourselves even though our hearts are bitter.

3.  “There’s not enough activities for the kids.”  This one ranks pretty high on the list among the most frequent reasons for leaving the church, primarily among thirty-somethings.  While there is part of me that sympathizes with this one, my ecclesiology kicks in and reminds me that the Bible doesn’t place children/teenagers at the center of church life.  When the corporate church gathers it is for the purpose of worship through prayer, preaching, and Holy Communion.  “Activities” should be a natural overflow of our worship together and should manifest themselves in living our lives together outside of the corporate gathering.  That may mean having an organized children’s/youth program or it might mean children hanging out together while Dad and Mom are hanging out with other church members.

4.  “My kids don’t have any friends.”  This is similar to the previous one.  Again, I have some sympathies here having grown up in a church where I was the only kid who went to school in the next county over.  The friendships I had through church were never as deep as they could have been had I went to school with them, but at the end of the day it’s still no reason to leave a church.  The Bible doesn’t place children/teenagers at the center of church life.  Besides, children are under the authority of their parents.  Parents that move churches based primarily on their child’s wants are making a grave mistake.  At the least, they are teaching their children that church is all about getting what we want out of it rather than finding ways to serve others.  It’s a very self-serving attitude.

5.  “I don’t like the preaching.”  This is one that I’ve heard several times, sometimes referring to my pastor’s preaching and sometimes referring to my own!  There’s nothing more humbling than being told “your preaching stinks.”  Sometimes leaving the church because of the preaching is a good thing, if that preaching is unbiblical or if the pastor is biblically unqualified.  But even in these cases, I would say that patience and loving dialogue with your pastor is prerequisite to you leaving.  In my experience, most of the people who say “I don’t like the preaching” are under deep conviction of sin as result of the preaching.  I’m not sure if I could say that anyone I’ve known who has used this reason had a passion for knowing and obeying the Bible.

6.  “I don’t like the music.”  This one is like the previous.  If the music is unbiblical or the person(s) leading the music is biblically unqualified, then leaving the church might be acceptable.  But again, patience and loving dialogue with church leadership is prerequisite.  But in my experience, people who have left the church over the music have been generally selfish.  They want the songs that they want played on the kind of instruments that they want without taking into account the preference of the rest of the church.  Worship is not about “me”.  It’s about “we,” God’s people gathering together to worship HIM!

7.  “It’s just time to move on.”  I’ve heard this one a lot over the years.  It’s probably the most troubling because you generally know your fellow church members well enough to know that it’s really a cover for, “I’m not happy,” or “Someone hurt my feelings,” or something similar.

8.  Don’t just disappear.  This one is the most frustrating and probably the most selfish.  For the church, it’s like having a limb removed without anesthesia because the person who leaves doesn’t prepare the church for the pain but simply cuts the body.  I understand that some people have a hard time with good-byes, but no matter how hard it can be, love says “good-bye.”  For others, they’re embarrassed about leaving, possibly because they have one of the other 7 “reasons” for leaving.

In the end, a few minutes of good-bye tears will be much more therapeutic than the days, weeks, or even years of bitterness that can result from just disappearing from the body.  My suggestion is that you talk to your pastor(s), your small group, and your closest friends about the possibility of leaving and ask for their prayers.  This simple step can go a long way toward a less painful departure.

In light of all of these reasons people give for leaving a church, might I offer some biblical reasons one might leave?

1.  The Word of God is held in little esteem.  The church may say it believes the Bible but few people are demonstrating hunger and thirst for it.  The preacher may say he preaches the Bible but his sermons are really not much more than reading a text and departing never to return thereafter; or reading a string of texts that may or may not be related; or continually preaching “turn or burn messages” that appear more hateful than helpful.

2.  The driving force is something other than Jesus Himself.  The church may say Jesus is its main priority but it turns to forms of entertainment, manipulation, and various other shenanigans rather than relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to both attract an audience and convert a people for Jesus’ glory.  Some may say this is too passive of a view.  To the contrary, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to be the church: preaching, teaching, worshipping, praying, giving, and serving one another.  Jesus said that unbelievers will know that we’re His disciples by our love for one another (Jn.13:35), not by how entertaining of an event we can put on.  [For the record, I’m not against programs and events, but I am against them if our trust is in them rather than the power of the Spirit]

3.  The majority of interpretations of Scripture are rooted in legalism rather than grace.  The church may say that it believes in salvation by God’s grace alone but the “air” may be thick with legalism: do this/don’t do that; shape up or ship out; turn or burn; be present every time the doors are open; you can’t wear this; you can’t drink that . . . .

4.  Holy living is sparse at best.  While legalism is satanic, holy living is Jesus-like.  We cannot save ourselves or stay saved by being good enough, yet all believers who have been justified by faith will live a godly life by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  The church may say that they believe in holy living by God’s grace, but the “air” may be thick with carnality–“holy” on Sunday but helly the rest of the week!

I hope this helps us minister to our fellow church members who are considering a church change.  May God grant us grace to be biblical in our decision making when it comes to whether we stay or go.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

Communication and Correction

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph.6:4).  Ephesians 6:4 sums up so much of what parenting is all about, including communication and correction.  When it comes to correcting our children, it seems that too many of us are correction-heavy and communication-light.

Now, when I say that we are communication-light, I do not mean to say that we communicate too little.  But I mean to say that we communicate inappropriately.  The reality is this: we as parents are always communicating with our children.  The question is not whether we’re communicating but what we are communicating.

Therefore, both good communication and biblical correction are crucial aspects of discipline that have three primary stages of discipline.  It is important to note that these three stages can overlap at different times and in different ways depending on the individual family dynamics.  Today we will look at the first stage.

Discipline Stage of Child Rearing
The discipline stage is what some have termed the give me your attention  stage.  It is most crucial in the first 5-8 years of childhood.  Having corrupt hearts, we are born as me-centered sinners. The discipline stage is when parents should use communication and correction to say “give me your attention,” and it should begin very early.  Take, for example, the changing-table situation in which an infant is demonstrating anger.  While it is not appropriate that you spank an infant, simply placing a gentle but firm hand on their chest or legs accompanied by a firm but gentle voice can do wonders.  Regular spankings of a child may be used as soon as the child is able to understand  a simple command and demonstrate defiance to that command.

Defining Discipline
1) Positive in nature :  Defining discipline can be difficult because many consider it to be negative and confuse discipline with punishment or retribution.  Biblical discipline, however, is always positive even when a spanking is involved.  God’s word tells us this plainly:

Proverbs 3:12-13—“My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reprove, 12 for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”

Proverbs 23:13-14—“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.  14 If you strike him with a rod, you will save his soul form Sheol.”

Hebrew 12:7-11—“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

2) Love-oriented:  Discipline must be administered out of love rather than sinful anger.  If we are angry about our children’s disobedience, then we are likely disciplining out of retribution rather than reconciliation.  The goal of discipline is to reconcile children to God and to others.  Therefore, we should be grieved by our child’s disobedience rather than angered.

1 Corinthians 13:4-6—“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;”

1 Corinthians 5:1-2—“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.  2 And you are arrogant!  Ought you not rather to mourn?  Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

3) Heart-oriented:  Discipline must be administered out of a concern for our child’s heart and not simply his behavior.  We must focus our attention on “Why?” a child did what he did and not simply on “What?” he did.  Dealing only with behavior can quickly turn children into hypocrites, who either become manipulators or fearful of punishment rather than God.

Matthew 15:19—“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”

4) Instruction-oriented:  Discipline must be saturated with instruction in righteousness and the gospel of Christ.  This is where communication plays a crucial role.

Ephesians 6:4—“Fathers, do no provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Kinds of Discipline
1) Formative instruction (offense): This kind of discipline is primarily preventative in nature and can  be both formal (Scripture, catechisms, prayers, Christian literature) and informal (using teachable moments throughout the day).  This is the foundation of everything that a Christian parent  does.  Just as in sports, we want to spend more time on offense than  defense in our parenting.   For example, the best way to deal with a child who runs away from you when you call them at the grocery store is by practicing this at home through formative discipline.

Proverbs 1:8-9—“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching,    9 for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.”

Proverbs 22:6—“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart      from it.”

2) Corrective discipline (defense): This kind of discipline is primarily reactive in nature and should be used frequently in the discipline stage when formative instruction has been ignored.  Sometimes only a verbal reproof is needed, such as when: the child has not been informed of the parent’s standard; or the child is not characterized by the sin in which he is caught.  In many cases, however, a spanking should be given.  Formative instruction should always precede and follow a spanking, though it should be brief because neither the child nor the parent is in their best form.

Proverb 22:15—“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Pr. 22:15).

Proverbs 29:15—“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”

Steps in Corrective Discipline

1) Examine your motives:  Ask yourself a series of questions such as the following.

–Am I doing this because my will has been violated or God’s will has been violated?

–Am I doing this because my child has sinned against God or because his behavior has caused me some personal discomfort, embarrassment, or trouble?

 –Am I doing this out of love and kindness?  (beware of unkind comments like, “I can’t believe you are so inconsiderate,” and replace them with more positive comments like, “Do you think it is kind or rude for you to . . . ?)

 2) Choose the right time and place:  Whatever you do, don’t embarrass your child because this shifts the focus to humiliation rather than repentance.  While discipline should be swift, it should also be prudent.  Therefore, do not spank your child in public or even in front of his siblings.

3) Choose the right words, not substitutes:  In describing your child’s disobedience, avoid words such as mean, stupid, or telling a story and replace them with the biblical words unkind, unwise, and lying.

4) Choose the right tone of voice:  Do not scold your child and demean him, but be self-controlled and respectful toward him.  Remember the Golden Rule:

Matthew 7:12—“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

5) Bring Scripture to bear:  Give them God’s standard and show them how they have fallen short of that standard.  Show them that only Jesus can meet this standard and that we must turn from our sin and trust in Him as our only help for obeying God.

6) Administer the spanking:  Give 1-5 swats on the bottom or upper thigh (the number will depend on their age and the nature of the disobedience, and make sure you tell your child how many swats they will be receiving). The spanking should be significant enough to inflict pain but should be controlled (as should dad or mom’s temper).  After the spanking, comfort your child and tell them that you forgive them and that forgiveness from God is possible through faith in Jesus. Tell them that Jesus died for this kind of disobedience.  Whenever possible, pray with your child after the spanking is complete.

7) Be prepared to suggest a biblical solution:  Help the child work through what a biblical response would have been and have the child follow through with it.  If they have sinned against someone, have them go to that person, apologize to them, and make restitution.

Obviously, there are many variables when it comes to corrective discipline, but prayerfully what we I have written here will be of help to parents as they strive to raise their children to know Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

Remove the Persistent Agitator

This is adapted from a manuscript of a recent sermon preached at Southside Baptist Church in Lebanon, TN.

As Paul brings his letter to Titus to a close, he wants to give some instructions on what to do with divisive church members who persistently disrupt the unity in the church with their wild theologies and controversies.

Titus 3:10-11—As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

1. The Church must be patient with divisive members (v.10a): Paul has already alluded to divisive members who promote “controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” (v.9).  He says they are “unprofitable” and “worthless.”  Notice, Paul didn’t say that these divisive members were being unprofitable and worthless or that their theology is unprofitable and worthless, though those things are certainly true.  Paul says that they, the members themselves, are unprofitable and worthless.

This is why the job of the shepherding elders is so tough.  Not every person that enters our building is membership material, meaning that not every visitor is here for the right reason.  The reason we exist as the Church is to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt.2:9).  But people come in all the time with their own agenda and motivations that are rooted in selfishness and not the gospel.

And sometimes, some of our own church members will become like those self-righteous visitors.  Some of our own members will hear a weird preacher with weird views, or else they’ll hear a good preacher with good views but they misunderstand something he says.  And then they begin to promote those weird views in the church, and before you know it divisions arise.

Paul gives Titus, as one of the elders of the Cretan Church, the responsibility of rebuking such divisive people.  But notice the patience with which the Cretan leadership is to have with them.  They are to be warned not once but twice.  This is very similar to Jesus’ teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18: call for repentance privately; then with two or three witnesses; and then tell it to the church.

In Matthew 18, however, sinning church members get three warnings.  In Titus, Paul is dealing with a more serious problem, namely false teaching that is causing division.  Someone who is committing adultery may or may not threaten the unity of the church.  Someone who has been unfaithful in gathering with the church may or may not threaten the unity of the church.  But false teachers spreading their gangrenous division is always a threat to the unity of the church.

Paul, however, is not saying that the false teachers ought to be ousted because of their false teaching, although that would be permissible.  Rather, Paul is saying that false teachers that are causing division in the church ought to be ousted.  And it is Jewish legalism that is especially in view in Paul’s mind.  Today, it might be denominational legalism or American-pride legalism or self-made moralism.  Yet in God’s grace, God calls for patience.

2. The Church must remove divisive members from its fellowship (vv.10b-11): Paul says to “have nothing more to do with” the divisive church member.  It means that after two warnings, the agitator is to be excommunicated and ostracized.  No more hanging out.  No more game nights or Mexican cheese dip or guy outings of any kind or shopping trips for the gals.

Paul is very adamant about this, and he tells us why in verse 11: “knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Warped and sinful means that a person is beyond ordinary instruction.  While they are not beyond the power of God’s grace to work in them, we must understand that the primary way that God works grace into a person is through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.  If a person is unteachable, always arguing and debating doctrine with a know-it-all attitude, then they are beyond God’s ordinary means of grace.

The phrase, “He is self-condemned” is very interesting.  Often people will react to church discipline by saying, “Who are we to judge?”  But notice that Paul does not promote the judging of others.  Rather, he makes it clear that such people are self-condemned, meaning they have brought judgment on themselves.  The church is simply confirming the sinner’s unrepentant status.

Sometimes we react to a single teaching of Scripture like this as if it is an isolated instruction, but the teaching on church discipline is far from being a single teaching.  Here’s a few examples of other places that mention the removal of and warning about unrepentant members:

2 Thessalonians 3:6—Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

2 Thessalonians 3:14—If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.

Galatians 6:1—Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Romans 16:17-18—I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.

The biblical evidence is clear.  The church should not tolerate theologically divisive people, but we should lovingly remove them from our fellowship.  For church discipline is love in three directions:

1) Love for the unrepentant person–It is better they suffer now than to suffer eternally in hell.  The hope is that they will repent and get right with Jesus.

2) Love for faithful members–We hear a lot about harming the unrepentant sinner, but what about the rest of the church that is walking faithfully with Jesus?  What is it teaching our children when a church member is living in adultery and the church stands by and does nothing about it?

3) Love for the glory of Jesus–Ultimately, it’s all about Jesus.  The Church has been saved and set apart for the purpose of making Jesus look good, for shining the spotlight on Him.

May the Lord continue to purify for Himself a people who willingly remove unrepentant members from its fellowship with patience and love in the hopes of bringing them back to repentance.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

Beyond Behavior: Dealing with the Heart

If the previous article, Foundations for Gospel Parenting, where not clear enough, this article intends to convince us further that parenting is impossible without the grace of God.  In parenting, we are not dealing with a dog or some other animal that can be trained through behavior modification or some other psychoanalytic method.  We are dealing with human hearts.

Corrupt Hearts
Every human being has a serious problem called sin.  Drawn from Scripture, Christians have referred to this as the doctrine of original sin, which says that all of humanity is born with the inherited sin-nature of Adam (Rom.5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22) that leaves us dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph.2:1; cf. Col.2:13).  This is the bad news that makes the good news so good.

Romans 5:12—“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

1 Corinthians 15:22—“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Ephesians 2:1-2a—“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. . .”

Therefore, every child is born with a sin-nature (Ps. 51:5; 58:3), with sinful foolishness “bound up in” his heart (Pro. 22:15).  We know they are born this way because we see the evidence from the earliest days.  No one has to teach a baby to arch his back on the changing table or to bite others out of selfish anger.  While we can learn how to sin in more horrendous ways from others, we do not need others to teach us how to sin.  One of the earliest examples in the Bible is Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen. 4:8).  Who taught Cain to murder?  No one.  He learned it from his own sinful heart.

In the same way, every “fit” that our child throws is really the rebel cry of the sinner saying, “I want what I want right now!”  Sometimes we convince ourselves that it is only the “strong-willed” child that needs our greatest prayers and correction.  The fact is every child is strong-willed, some are just more obvious about it.  Every child has the same sin-nature.

Psalm 51:5—“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Psalm 58:3-4—“The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.  4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent.”

Proverbs 22:15—“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”

But lest we forget, we parents were born with that same sin-nature, and even after salvation, we still struggle with our sinful flesh (Rom. 7:13-25).  So we are not simply dealing with the sinful hearts of our children, but we are dealing with our own hearts too.  The only help we have is the new birth that only the gospel of Christ can bring.

Romans 7:18—“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

New Birth
Therefore, Christian parenting is not mainly about parents changing a child’s behavior but about God changing hearts, both the child’s and the parents’.  Our hearts need new birth, the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (Eze.36:22-32; Jn.3:1-8).

Ezekiel 36:25-27—“ ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rule.’ ”

One of the greatest dangers of parenting is to assume that your child is saved.  But we should never presume upon God, and we should never assume that because a child has “made a profession of faith” or that our child attends Sunday School and church that he is converted.

On the contrary, parents should preach the gospel continually to their children and be fruit inspectors looking for evidence of conversion.  Salvation is known by its fruit, not simply a decision that was made in the past.  Parents should watch for the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23 that will be produced in every believer.

Galatians 5:22-23—“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.”

But be careful of two things when inspecting children’s spiritual fruit:

1)  Do not confuse fruit for faith.   We are not saved by the fruit of the Spirit.  We are saved by faith in Christ alone.

2)  Do not expect a bumper-crop from young fruit trees.  The fruit of the Spirit is a progressive process for all believers that is life-long.  This process is called sanctification.

May the Lord grant us the grace required for dealing with corrupt hearts in our parenting.

Sola Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

Foundations for Gospel Parenting

Parenting is among the most challenging tasks in the world, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility. In hopes of encouraging parents or parents-to-be, I want to write a series of articles on Gospel Parenting beginning with the Foundations for Gospel Parenting.

Mission Impossible
1.  Keeping eternity in mind: Christian parenting is a high calling, not of primarily preparing our children for this life but the life to come. Therefore, the goal of Christian parenting is to prepare our children for eternity. And the stakes are high because eternal judgment is a real danger of preparing our children only for this life.

2.  Grace-required: The only hope for our children is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our children don’t need a better earthly life than dad and mom have had. They don’t need simple morality, which can be just as damning as outright sin. Our children need moral perfection, even as God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev.11:44). The problem is that children cannot make themselves holy, and parents cannot make their children holy. Therefore, our children need new life that only the gospel can bring. So at this point, we all need a reality check—parenting is not easy, in fact it is humanly impossible because of sin.

Channels of Grace
1.  Gospel power: The first means of grace in parenting is the gospel itself. The word gospel means “good news,” and it is that. It is the best news on the planet. But to have good news means there must be an opposite. The opposite is the bad news that we have rebelled against our King who created us and who demands punishment for our sin. Sin is no laughing matter, whether done by an adult or by a child. Because we cannot atone for our own sin, God sent Jesus to live the life that we could not live and die the death that we deserve, and every person that turns from self-reliance to Christ-reliance receives the gift of eternal life.

2.  Godly marriages: A second means of grace in parenting is found in Ephesians 5:27-33, where God instructs wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord and for husbands to love their wives even as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. Our marriages will either be a living and walking example of the gospel, pointing our children to the cross, or our marriages will be a living and walking example of selfishness, leading our children away from the cross. The foundation of gospel-centered parenting is gospel-centered marriages.

3.  Father-focused homes: A third means of grace in parenting is the establishment of the father as the head of the household. Whether we like it or not, our God is a patriarchal God. God is Father to us. In the same way, God has determined that the family be led by the father. The trend in America, however, is just the opposite. We place excessive emphasis on the mother in our homes, or even worse the children. The statistics that reveal this as a problem are overwhelming.

When it comes to spiritual leadership in the home, men sin in one of two ways: domination or abdication. Most people scoff at the biblical teaching of the wife submitting to her husband as a license for the husband to dominate his wife, often in a mental and physical way, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. The Bible’s teaching is actually very liberating for women. Further, domination of women among genuine Christian men is very rare.

The greater temptation is that of abdication of male leadership in the home, characterized as a husband’s direct or indirect refusal of leadership. For the best parenting results, the husband must take responsibility for his God-ordained role as head of the home. This leaves no room for pride or feelings of superiority. Rather, husbands should approach this task with fear, trembling, humility and love.

4.  Loving discipline: A fourth means of grace is loving discipline. This is the most familiar tool of parenting for most of us. When we think of raising children in the ways of God, we think of discipline, especially spankings. Many Christians administer spankings, but many of those who do must confess that that they do not always administer them in a biblical way (something we’ll examine in a future article).

5.  Scripture and prayer: If the previous four means of grace are going to advance our parenting, then they must be saturated with two final gifts from God, Scripture and prayer. Without divine guidance as found in God’s Word through fervent prayer, parents can have no assurance that their children will grow up to love God as their Sovereign Lord. It is through Scripture and prayer that the Holy Spirit opens eyes and ears to the gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

Because It’s God’s Word

Some of the stranger moments in my ministry have to be when people have asked, “Why would you preach that [topic]?  My answer on some of these occasions has been less than stellar but I have always tried to emphasize it’s because it’s God’s Word.  But mostly, I think I have been dumbfounded by this question.  This is especially true given the fact that I preaching expositionally–meaning that I strive to draw my “topic” from whatever the topic the verses I am preaching presents.

It has been my experience that the “Why would you preach that?” question has been primarily in regard to more debated issues, and unless I preach those issues uniform to what the hearers have always been taught or have always assumed, then people tend to get upset.  Here are a two reasons I have heard over the years for their disgruntledness.

1)  “It’s confusing for people”–While I completely understand this concern, I don’t believe it is ever a reason to shy away from any biblical topic.  Certainly, some biblical topics must be taught age appropriately or even spiritual-age appropriately, but the Church must never back down from preaching the Word and trusting the Holy Spirit to apply it to hearts as He sees fit.  How often did Jesus teach His disciples something that only led to their being wholly confused?  One of many examples is when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn.2:19), and the disciples had not a clue what Jesus meant (cf. Jn.2:22).

2) “It creates doubt in the hearts of people”–Again, I completely understand this concern, but I don’t believe it is ever a reason to shy away from any biblical topic.  We should certainly anticipate the potential doubts that may arise, but that’s part of the job of a pastor.  It is his responsibility to be patient with those who have doubts, but it would be irresponsible for a pastor to avoid a topic for fear of creating doubts.  After Jesus was raised from the dead, some of His disciples doubted it (Matt.28:17).  Does that mean Jesus was irresponsible in raising Himself from the dead?  Or does this mean that pastors who preach the resurrection are irresponsible for preaching it?  God forbid!  What we must realize is that oftentimes doubt is just a polished up word for unbelief.

I remember in particular being asked once why I would even bring up the doctrine of election because it only leads to confusion and causes people to doubt their salvation.  This person tried to defend his statement by saying, “What if someone has been a member of the church all their life and think that they’re saved but they’re not.  And when they hear about election it creates doubt that troubles their heart.  If they are not elect, wouldn’t it be better for them to live in peace for the few years they have on earth before they die and go to hell.”

Needless to say, I was astonished for several reasons.  First, I would never just “bring up” a difficult doctrine like election unless I think it necessary.  I would say that 9 times out of 10, I have only brought up election and similarly difficult doctrines only if the doctrines are mentioned or alluded to in the Scripture that I am preaching.

Second, I’m pretty sure Jesus never held back anything in His preaching that would discomfort unbelievers who thought they were believers.  On one occasion in which the Jews were arguing with Jesus about eternal life, the Jews said to Him, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  And the prophets died!  Who do you make yourself out to be?” (Jn.8:53).

Jesus ends this argument a few verses later by answering all of their questions with great finality: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn.8:58).

What do you think their response was to Jesus?  Great joy?  No, anything but.  Their reaction was unbelief and anger and murderous intentions (Jn.8:59).  Here are the Jews who thought they were “saved,” but in reality they were not.  And here is Jesus who did the most loving thing He could in that situation–He taught them the truth.

So in the power of the Holy Spirit, and speaking the truth in love, may the Church proclaim all the counsel of God–because souls hang in the balance and it is better to trouble a soul a little here than to see an “untroubled” soul perish in hell.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

“Plurality of Elders”: The Preeminent Structure for Church Leadership

In the previous article “Elder”: The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders,” we learned that the term “elder” is by far the most frequently used term for church leaders in the New Testament.  As was previously noted, this doesn’t mean that we should no longer call church leaders “pastor/shepherd” or bishop/overseer.” But I did suggest that the preeminence of the term “elder” might affect our understanding of how decision-making ought to happen in the local church.  I said this because the contexts in which the term “elder” occur reveals a lot about the leadership structure of the early church.

Today I will be noting the three main church leadership structures that have been employed over the last two thousand years and try to determine which one gives Christ the most preeminence, especially as it obeys Scripture the closest.

1.  Episcopal:  The Episcopal form of leadership has been the most used form since at least Ignatius of Antioch and was practically undisputed until the Reformation.  This remains the form of church leadership in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopalian churches.

2.  Presbyterian:  The Presbyterian form of leadership has been common in Presbyterian and Reformed churches and is commonly described as elder-rule.  A plurality of elders are elected by the congregation or the drawing of lots.  These elders also serve as leaders in the regional body of churches (classis), and the classis will send a chosen few to a broader body of leadership known as a Synod.  These broader bodies do not have a higher authority except only in so far as authority has been delegated to them.

3.  Congregational:  The Congregational form of leadership is founded on the principle of each local congregation being an independent, self-governing body of Christ.  Congregational churches may be involved in associations of other local churches and conventions of churches across a wide geographical area, but congregational churches remain autonomous—that is self-regulated.  If you have been a long-time Baptist then you will understand this form of leadership the best.  But you might be surprised to learn that there are two main forms of Congregationalism:

a)  Single elder-led/Congregational-rule:  This is when the congregation elects a single man to serve as the elder of the church.  While the elder is sought for council and leadership, the congregation makes nearly all of the decisions.

b)  Plural elder-led/Congregational-rule:  This is when the congregation elects a body of elders to serve as a plurality of leadership.  They will not all be paid staff of the church but they all will be responsible for shepherding, teaching, equipping, and being examples to the congregation.  Usually there will be a “first-among-equals” that does the majority of the public teaching and may be the only paid staff.

In some cases, the elders are sought for council and leadership, yet the congregation makes nearly all of the decisions.  In other cases, the congregation is free to take opinions or concerns to the elders, yet the majority of decisions are made by the elder body.  Usually the only decisions that the congregation actually vote on include an annual budget, appointment of elders or deacons, major building programs, or the admission/dismissal of a member.  The congregation elects the elders and trust that they will shepherd the flock faithfully.  If they have issues with any of the elders’ decisions or an elder himself, then they simply talk with the elders about it.

It is my conviction from Scripture that a plural elder-led/ congregational-rule best reflects the New Testament evidence of what local church leadership ought to look like.

a.  Evidence of a plurality of elder-led leadership:  There is ample evidence in the New Testament of a plurality of elder-led leadership.

Acts 11:29-30—So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  30 And they  did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Acts 14:23—And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 15:22-23—Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  They sent Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers,

Acts 20:17, 28—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.

Philippians 1:1—Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints of Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.

1 Thessalonians 5:12—We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Be at peace among yourselves.

James 5:14—Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

Hebrews 13:7, 17—Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . .  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

b.  Strengths of a plurality of elder-led leadership:  Not only is there biblical evidence for a plurality of elder-led leadership, but there are lots of common sense reasons why it is a better system.  The following seven strengths are drawn from Mark Dever’s The Deliberate Church.

1)  It curbs the exaltation of one man above others

2)  It balances the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders (1 Cor. 12:27-30)

3)  It gives greater pastoral wisdom (assurance in knowing and doing God’s will; Acts 6; 15:25; Matt. 18:18-20)

4)  It indigenizes leadership

5)  It enables corrective discipline

6)  It reduces congregation criticism

7)  It reduces “us vs. him” thinking

c.  Weaknesses of a single elder-led leadership:  There are also lots of common sense reasons that a single elder-led, congregational-rule system is quite weaker.

1)  It is easier for a few influential people to manipulate a congregation than it is to manipulate a plurality of elders.

2)  It is easier for a congregation to bulldoze a single pastor than a plurality of elders.

3)  It is easier for a congregation to idolize a single pastor to the point that he becomes an autocratic leader that is “above the law.”

4)  It is easier for dissension to grow in the congregation because everyone considers himself a decision maker in the church.

5)  Most single elder-led congregations have adopted an elder-led structure by default:  We see this in congregations where the body of deacons is looked to as the decision makers in the church.  While the deacons must have the congre-gation’s vote to make it official, everyone knows that it is mainly a formality.  The problem with this system is that deacons are not qualified to serve as elders.  Therefore, it would be best to simply adopt the most biblically sound leadership structure—a plurality of elders that are entrusted to lead the congregation.

While there is certainly some room for debate on the issue of church leadership structures, it  seems that the weight of New Testament evidence points to a plurality of elders who lead the local congregation.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

“Elder”: The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders

Who are the leaders in the local church?  That’s a simple enough question, but it sometimes proves difficult to answer.  Really, there is only one leader of the local church–Jesus Christ, Son of God.  Paul teaches us this in Colossians 1:15-20:

Colossians 1:15-20—He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

From these verses we learn two crucial truths about Jesus. 1) Jesus is preeminent over all creation (vv.15-18).  2) Jesus is preeminent over the Church (vv.18-20)

While this answer is obvious, we often give lip-service to this truth with little real life application.  So its important for the local Church to look to Jesus as its authority in all things.  And one of those things has to do with who He has appointed to lead His local churches.

While there are several structures used by various denominations and churches that are adequate enough, we are in search for something more than adequate. We are in search for the leadership structure that gives Jesus the most preeminence.  And our search must begin with Scripture and not simply our own traditions.

The first step is to define the terms used for Church leaders in the New Testament.  I believe the best text to start with on this issue is Acts 20:17-29.

Acts 20:17, 28-29—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;

1.  Three terms: There are two terms for Church leaders used in these verses (elders/overseers), and the third term (pastor) is indirectly alluded to with the use of the word flock.  We will also look at a fourth term (deacons) that the New Testament mentions as well.

a.  Elder (presbuteros):   This term is used 16 times in the New Testament in reference to local Church leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:1, 5).  The word elder is best defined as an official within a group and is sometimes translated presbytery.

b.  Overseer (episkopos/episkopein):   The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 4 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Tit. 1:7).  The word overseer is best defined as one who is engaged in oversight or supervision of a group of people and can also be translated as bishop.

 c.  Pastor (poimein):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders only 1 time (Eph. 4:11) The verb form of the word is used 2 times (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt.5:2) in reference to local church leaders.  The term is literally translated shepherd (or the verb form, shepherding), which highlights the pastor’s role as a leader and protector of Jesus’ sheep

  d.  Deacon (diakonos):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 3 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).  It is best defined in two ways: 1) an agent or courier who serves as an intermediary in a transaction; 2) an assistant who gets something done at the request or command of a superior. Based on the meaning of the word itself and the evidence in the New Testament, the office of deacon is a servant body, NOT A DECISION-MAKING BODY.

This is where many churches (including many Baptists) have erred the most.  No where in Scripture do we see deacons as the primary decision makers in the Church.  Rather, the deacons exist for the purpose of meeting the physical needs of the congregation so that pastors can be freed up for prayer, study, and teaching of God’s Word.

2.  One office: While there is debate among Christians, the biblical evidence is most in favor of these three words being used in an over-lapping sense.

a.  Scripture confirms this:  The Scripture that we read today, Acts 20:17, 28-29, is most convincing, but two others clearly support this understanding as well.

Titus 1:5, 7a—This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . . 7a  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach . . .

In Titus, Paul tells Titus to appoint elders, and then he goes on to describe the qualifications of an overseer (1 Tim.3:1-7).  If the words elder and overseer are not being used in an overlapping sense here, then Paul is indeed confusing.

1 Peter 5:1-2—So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder   and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

This time it’s Peter using the terms in an overlapping sense.  He commands the elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the Church by exercising oversight (i.e. overseeing/bishoping).

b.  Scripture never lists separate qualifications for the three terms:  This is proven by looking at Titus 1:5, 7a again and cross-referencing it with 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Therefore, we can conclude that the three words refer to one office in which qualified men have the same function (primarily that of teaching and leading the flock).

3.  The preeminent term of “elder”:  As we have seen, the word elder is used 4 times the frequency of overseer, and the word elder is used 16 times the frequency of pastor.  Therefore, the preeminent term for a church leader in the New Testament is elder.

4.  Plurality of elders:  While it doesn’t really matter which of the three terms we call the ministers in the local Church, the fact that the term elder is the most prominent does affect our understanding of how a Church is led.  Over the years, I have been convinced from Scripture that a plurality of elders is what God intends for the local Church.  I still whole-heartedly affirm congregationalism, but I have come to believe that a Church should have more than one elder/overseer/pastor.  And that will be the next topic on The Threshing Floor . . .

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

The Tithe That Binds, part 3

Having presented the case that Old Testament tithing is no longer binding as a law for New Testament believers, and having put forth the abiding principles of faith, sacrifice, and worship as the center of giving in the New Testament, I now want to present and answer the most common objections to my view that I have encountered over the years (some of which have already been addressed in the previous articles).

1) Some have said “Jesus commanded us to tithe”: This conviction comes primarily from Matthew 23:23/Luke 11:42.  About the tithing of herbs, Jesus certainly says, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt.23:23), but we must remember that the overall context and the overall biblical theology of this phrase (i.e., how it fits into the entirety of scriptural teaching) must guide our interpretation.  Jesus is talking to Jews living under the Old Covenant system.  We should expect Him to command them to tithe, just as He would command them to circumcise their baby boys, eat kosherly, observe all of the feast days, and keep the Sabbath Day holy.

If we are going to insist that Jesus is commanding us to tithe from these texts, then we must be consistent in our interpretation of other such commands from Jesus.  For example, in John 13:14-15 Jesus commands His disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (emphasis added).  Admittedly, foot-washing is not an Old Testament law, but it does serve as a command of Jesus nonetheless.  It is the very Word of God just as much as His Word on tithing, but few Christians would say that foot-washing is binding on New Testament believers (minus a few groups here and there).

2)  Some have said, “I know that you have a seminary education but . . .”: I have to say that this one can be a bit disconcerting.  What does a seminary education have to do with anything?  Certainly, such an education can sway a person to my view on this issue.  But just as certainly, an education can sway a person to believe that the tithe is still binding in the New Testament.

3)  Some have said, “Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek before the Mosaic Law”: I have briefly addressed this in Part 1 of this series but want to say a bit more here.  While it is true that tithing predates the Law in the Old Testament, so too does circumcision.  Every orthodox branch of Christianity agrees that circumcision is no longer binding on God’s people under the New Covenant.  Some may object that circumcision was the sign of the old covenant.  Therefore comparing tithing and circumcision is like comparing apples to oranges.  I must respectfully disagree.  I do so respectfully because I do agree that circumcision was the sign of the covenant.  But I consider this a false dichotomy.  Even though circumcision was the sign of the covenant, this makes tithing no less a part of the Mosaic Law.  While tithing was not the centerpiece of the Law, it certainly was the major tool for funding the religious system that carried out the other laws and duties of the covenant such as circumcision.  In other words, the tithe “paid” for the procedure of circumcision.

4)  Some have said, “Won’t this encourage people to give less”: This may be the most frequent objection I have heard, that on one hand I consider to be the most reasonable.  It is the most reasonable because it can be the most natural response.  We might say this is man’s natural response to a financial issue.  I’ve noticed over the years that people get antsy when the money gets tight in the local church.  Our natural reaction to such a problem is usually law.  We tend to believe that laying down a standard percentage for giving and then teaching that standard a bit dogmatically will lead to more faithfulness.  But this misses the point of giving entirely.  Law-based giving lends itself to legalism and worry over whether you have met the “standard.”  Grace-based giving, however, lends itself to freedom in the Spirit.  The “standard” for giving in a grace-based economy leads to a deeper reality of worship.  The people that would use my interpretation of the tithe to wiggle their way out of “having” to give more money have already nullified God’s grace anyway.  Both legalistic giving and libertarian giving miss the point of the Bible: grace-based giving.

While this series of articles on the tithe may have left some things unanswered, I pray that it serves to help us understand God’s Word and to keep lines of communication between Christians open.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

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