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Two Questions Every Pastor Should Be Able To Answer

One of the major turning points in my approach to life came after considering (and finally understanding, to some extent at least) the implications of the advice of a friend. He had said to me (echoing an ancient philosopher), “There is no such thing as the unmistaken life, but there is such a thing as the unexamined life, and it is not worth living.”

I think unexamined living is a foible recongnizable as common to man. We go with what we know, what is comfortable, what has seemed to work in the past, and our ministries are likely not excepted from this unwitting approach. Each aspect of our life can benefit from (re)examination from time to time. And asking one’s self questions can be a very helpful form of examination.

The questions below pertain to the most basic decisions pastors must make each week as they plan the worship services for the Lord and their congregations. Yet, for some, it may have been quite a while since they actually took the time and effort to think these problems through. Perhaps some pastors have actually never considered these questions.

Now, in order to clarify a term below, I’ll have to tip my hand a little bit as to where I believe the answer to these questions lies. When using the term “elements” here, I refer to the Regulative Principle of Worship for the definition. Elements in this context are the categorical activities of worship (such as singing, prayer, Scripture reading, communion, and preaching, along with, in some cases, flag-pledging, karate demonstrations, and snake-handling) through which the pastors lead their congregants in the worship of God. This use of the term elements make no distinction as to styles or forms (topical messages vs. expository, praise choruses vs. traditional hymns, and etc.); those decisions are not in view here.

So, to the questions.

1) How can you be certain that God approves of each specific element you choose to include in the service of His worship? I suggest that the first consideration in planning worship should be determining what God Himself wants. If indeed we gather for the purpose of honoring God, must we not account for what He thinks of what we are doing?

2) How can you be certain that the inclusion of a given element in your worship sevice would not constrain any congregant to violate his or her conscience by participating in it? After all, your congregants, out of love for their Lord and in the spirit of Hebrews 10:25 desire to attend to gathering for worship, probably to the point of feeling significant obligation. Imagine the conflict such attendess face if asked to participate in something they believe is innappropriate. On the one hand they wish to honor God, their leaders, and the rest of the congregation by attendance and participation, but on the other, they do not wish to dishonor God by performing some unnapproved ritual (for lack of better).

Please, take time to examine your practices in light of these questions. I believe there is an answer to them one can be certain of.

About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

12 Responses to Two Questions Every Pastor Should Be Able To Answer

  1. "I suggest that the first consideration in planning worship should be determining what God Himself wants [and does NOT want.]"

    "And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean."

    God's Word is very clear. We can determine what God Himself does not want. He never wants a mixture of the holy with the profane. So, let's be clear. To bring the world's anti-God culture in the form of Rock, RAP, Hip, Hop to a place of worship is to violate His principles for worship. God is offended!

    LM

  2. David Oestreich says:

    Hi Lou,

    While I'm sympathetic to your interjection, I pointed out in the article that these questions are intended to specifically address the elements of worship as opposed to styles and forms. I further suggest that, while it is appropriate to discuss forms and styles and sacredness and profanity,to do so to the neglect of examination of the elemental considerations is a mistake.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. David,

    Granting (a) that the conscience is progressively shaped by the Spirit of God through the Word of God in the life of a conscience-cleansed believer, and (b) that believers are obligated to both obey their consciences as well as those who have the rule over them, then what is the role of the church and its leadership as a means of the Spirit in shaping the individual believer's conscience?

    If a particular member's conscience is not yet appropriately expanded to biblically stated boundaries, should the corporate worship service be elementally truncated for the sake of that individual?

    Blessings,

    Dave

  4. David Oestreich says:

    Hi Dave,

    Interesting questions. I hope you don't mind if I include some additional questions in my answers.

    I think it is inevitable that in pastoring a church, elders/pastors shape the consciences of individual believers. And that teaching comes in both express and implicit forms. It's part of the discipleship process, but the realm conscience is (by definition) an individual realm. Perhaps pastors should seek not to shape the individual conscience so much as equip each individual to develop and heed his/her own? Based on the Word, of course, which is a step in the direction of the answer, I believe.

    Also, I think it might be helpful to get practical with your second question. Can you give me an hypothetical example of a truncation that might result from "a particular member's conscience not" being "yet appropriately expanded to biblically stated boundaries"?

  5. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Dave, your questions hit at the heart of the issue. While pastors certainly have authority over the people in their congregation, their authority is not inherent but derived from the authority of the Word of God. therefore, while pastors certainly are involved with shaping the consciences of their people, they may do so only within the bounds of the Bible's authority.

    Pastors have no right to constrain the consciences of their people or "shape" them apart from the authority of the Word of God.

    It is this very limit of the church's authority that drove the regulative principle debates within the Church of England and led to the language in the Westminster Confession (and later the London Baptist Confession).

    And it is exactly this liberty of conscience that drives my own commitment to the principle as well.

  6. Scott and David,

    I too am committed to the freedom and responsibility of personal conscience and agree that a pastor/elder's authority is derived authority.

    That said, while I would never intentionally compel a believer's conscience to move a direction contrary to Scripture, I would, however, want to work in tandem with the Spirit to shape a conscience (by the Word) to progressively reflect Scriptural commitments as well as Scriptural boundaries.

    While this may cross the line into stylistic considerations, let me offer an example. I would see it as being appropriate for church leadership to work to shape a believer's conscience towards participation in corporate musical worship, which includes instrumentation, even if that believer does not believe that instrumentation (in general) is appropriate. That being said, we cannot urge them to participate until such participation can flow from faith/conviction. During that time of (hopeful) development, we can teach with an aim that their convictions are shaped by the Spirit as the Word is rightly preached and applied, so that they can in turn participate with the whole body. I do not, believe, though, that the church life of entire congregation must be governed by the lowest common denominator (i.e. no instrumentation), when that denominator is not compelled by a fair reading of Scripture.

    I wonder if these sorts of transitions are natural when a church ministers to those who are coming from a more legalistic background. The other sort of tension (i.e. a believer being compelled by conscience to not participate in a karate demonstration during worship service) seems to arise when believers are being pressured by a more pragmatic, man-centered take-over within an existing body?

    Thanks for a good interaction.

    Dave

  7. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Hi, Dave. Thanks for your perspective. I'll be the first to admit that even though I hold strongly to the regulative principle, the issue is far from settled, and so it is helpful to have a brother like you who I know is carefully leading his flock to challenge (and perhaps correct) my thinking.

    Here's where I have a problem with your thinking, and I might even back peddle a bit on my agreement with you on one point.

    We have in the NT two clear examples of the issue at hand: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. In either of those cases, does Paul tell church leaders to try to change the consciences of the people? l can't find a case.

    In fact, even in the case of people whose consciences are clearly misinformed concerning meat offered to idols, Paul never says to try to convince those people to change their convictions. The only area I would say church leadership should attempt to change someone's conscience is when what that person thinks clearly contradicts biblical precept.

    Romans 14 really speaks to this issue. The situation there is different than Corinthians, and, I would suggest, even closer to debates about the RPW, because it deals with people who wanted to observe certain religious activities (in their case holy days and Mosaic dietary restrictions). Paul says everyone must be convinced in his own mind. For people in the privacy of their own lives this means that we are free to do whatever our biblically-informed consciences allow us to do, but what about when a bunch of individual consciences get together, for corporate worship for example? Now everyone on the congregation has to be convinced that what they are doing is biblical. And what is the only way church leaders can convince all the people that what they are doing is biblical? If they have clear biblical warrant.

  8. Scott,

    This has been a helpful and sharpening interaction for which I'm thankful.

    I think I agree with what you are saying when it comes to congregational practice (i.e. the worship service). I really appreciated the logical connection of conscience to the RPW when you said:

    "Now everyone on [sic] the congregation has to be convinced that what they are doing is biblical. And what is the only way church leaders can convince all the people that what they are doing is biblical? If they have clear biblical warrant."

    Earlier you asked:

    "In either of those cases, does Paul tell church leaders to try to change the consciences of the people? l can’t find a case."

    While I do not see a specific case in Romans 14 of Paul commanding church leaders to work to expand the consciences of brothers, I think I could equally counter that by using the word "weak" in Romans 14, Paul is not only identifying himself with the "strong," but also implying that the "weak" should not remain "weak" forever.

    Since expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Claudius had likely been reversed and the Jewish believers were being welcomed back to a predominantly Gentile body at Rome, the Gentile believers were to welcome the Jewish believers and not for the sake of quarreling with them about dietary practices, etc. As with many issues, Paul's strategy is long-term growth in this regard. In the short-term, however, he does not want any believer to violate his conscience, nor to be entrapped by a brother to do so (that's what I believe the often misunderstood "stumbling-block" principle to be referencing). In the long-term, I have a hard time believing that Paul wants the "weak" remaining "weak," while in the short term, he desires both "weak" and "strong" to welcome one another.

    I would contend that after the closing of the canon, as the full body of Scripture will be read publicly and expounded in the assembly, believers will doubtless hear portions of Hebrews, Colossians 2, Mark 7, and 1 Timothy 4 enough times that their consciences will be expanded by the Spirit through the Scriptures to the point where they will probably be able to eat meat, whereas before they could not. This will be especially so if the Word is being preached with accuracy and with application.

    In the meanwhile, until such an expansion of conscience occurs, the unity of the body, the preservation of a good conscience, and the ideal of love are all more important than what a believer eats.

    In this sense, as the elders are tasked with preaching the whole counsel of God, are they not going to simultaneously shape "weak" consciences into "strong" ones, even if they are not purposefully doing so?

  9. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Hey, Dave. I think you make some valid points about differences between times before and after the closing of the canon. I'll have to mull over that a bit.

    As to the weak and strong issue, I still don't think I agree. There is nothing in Scripture that commands, implies, or expects the "weak" to change. Their rights to hold their view are protected, and the responsibility lies on the "strong" to restrict their rights for the sake of unity. Mark Snoeberger's paper on this passage is extremely helpful here. He concludes,

    "Paul does not call on strict believers to “lighten up”

    for the sake of peace and unity; he calls on permissive believers to “tighten up” for the sake of

    peace and unity."

    http://dbts.edu/pdf/macp/2007/Snoeberger,%20Weak%

    Having said all this, I should be clear that my convictions regarding the regulative principle do not rest solely upon this point of Christian liberty. There are also several other important biblical principles that inform it, including God's right to determine how he wants to be worshiped and the myriad of examples of worship in Scripture that God rejected on the basis of the fact that he had not prescribed it.

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