When I was a sophomore in high school my father was a student in Bible college. One Sunday he was sent to preach at a small Reformed Presbyterian church. The church was without a minister, its small denomination was unable to help, and it was appealing to a Baptist college for pulpit supply. The people must have liked what they heard. At the end of the service, the church’s session approached my father and asked whether he might not come to pastor the church.
At first, the question seemed outrageous. This was a church that stored its baptistery in its pulpit and that held Covenant Theology. It was also part of a presbytery and synod of Presbyterian churches. It hardly seemed like a church that would flourish under the ministry of a Baptist college student.
My father immediately protested that he was a Baptist, and that if he came to pastor the church he would preach believer immersion and other New Testament doctrine as Baptists understood it. The response of the session—and of the congregation (most of which were still gathered in the building)—was, “We’re willing to learn.” Then my father protested that he was a dispensationalist, while the church believed in Covenant Theology. The elders looked at each other and then responded, “We don’t even know what that means.”
Eventually my father did accept the pastorate of the church. The leaders and the people knew exactly what they were getting before he came, and they responded to his teaching. With very few exceptions, the unbaptized members of the congregation were immersed and the church was reorganized, first as an independent Bible church, then as a Baptist church. When the church voted out of its synod, a denominational official even came to moderate the business meeting. The parting disappointed the synod, but even they felt that it was better to have a thriving Baptist church than a dying Presbyterian one. And the church did thrive.
From the very beginning, the key was transparency. The church’s elders and members understood exactly what kind of pastor they were getting, what he was going to preach and teach, and where he intended to lead the congregation. On all sides his presence was recognized as honorable.
How different it is when a pastor comes to a congregation under false colors, pretending to be in agreement with the church’s doctrine and practice when he actually hopes to change things at the first opportunity. That approach—the approach in which a pastor conceals his real agenda until he has established an adequate base for introducing change—is simply dishonest. A man who practices it is a deceiver, and to the extent that he deceives his congregation, his ministry stems as much from the father of lies as it does from the Father of lights.
The local church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). If the church is the pillar and ground, then the pastor is not. The church has the duty of reading the Scriptures, understanding the apostle’s doctrine, and framing the church’s doctrine in accordance with it. Insofar as he is a member of the congregation, the pastor has a voice. Insofar as he is the church’s teacher, he has a shaping influence. But the church must establish its own doctrinal parameters, just as the church at Jerusalem did (under apostolic and pastoral leadership) in Acts 15. The decisions of the apostles and elders (Acts 16:4) were also the decisions of the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:22-25).
Furthermore, the church calls its own members into account, both for their doctrine and for their conduct (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Rom. 16:17). Because he is a member of the church, the pastor is under the church’s discipline. He is not exempt from it. Like all other members, when he enters the congregation he agrees to teach in accordance with the church’s position. Every member (including the pastor) has soul liberty, but no member has the right to use his soul liberty to subvert the accepted doctrines of the church.
Sometimes people change their doctrine. They become convinced that the Bible requires something other than they used to believe. Sometimes these people are pastors, and that is to be expected if pastors are continually studying the Word of God and growing in understanding. Most of the time, those changes will be relatively minor. They will fall within their churches’ doctrinal parameters. Sometimes, however, a minister passes through a significant transition that takes him outside of his church’s established doctrine.
When such a thing happens, the pastor has only one honorable alternative. He must quietly resign. If his ministry has been at all appreciated, people will ask for the reason. He can rightly explain how his doctrine has changed. The choice is then with the church as to whether his resignation will be accepted or whether the church will redefine its commitments to allow for greater breadth.
Often, however, pastors who have changed their doctrine simply remain in their office. They quietly begin to teach their new position to susceptible members until they have built up enough of a following to challenge and perhaps overthrow the church’s position. This approach is simply unethical. No one has a right to remain in any ministry under false pretenses.
Subverting the church’s position publicly is just as bad. Some men will openly declare their new position, effectively defying anyone who disagrees to do something about it. This tactic often works: most Christians hate a conflict, and many will leave the church rather than to get into a fight. A willful pastor who simply brazens it out may actually be able to subvert the church’s position—but he is just as unethical and his conduct is just as immoral as the pastor who subverts the church’s doctrine secretly.
Perhaps the worst case involves the pastor who realizes that he cannot change the church, but who gathers a following from its membership and leads them out as a split from the parent body. Whether his actual position is right or wrong, this pastor’s conduct is deeply immoral. Paul calls the congregation God’s temple, and he makes it clear that God will hurt anyone who hurts His temple (1 Cor. 3:17). Paul utters these words in a context that deals with church division.
Churches are sometimes wrong in their doctrine, and so are pastors. Both have a right to change. Nevertheless, any change must be made in a way that upholds the values of honesty, integrity, transparency, and unity.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
An Address to God Before Meat
Matthew Henry (1662–1714)
Thou art the protector and preserver of the whole creation.
Thou hast fed us all our lives unto this day,
with food convenient for us,
though we are evil and unthankful.
We pray thee forgive all our sins,
by which we have forfeited all thy mercies,
and let us see our forfeited right restored in Christ Jesus.
Give us to taste covenant love in common mercies,
and to use these and all our creature comforts
to the glory of our great Benefactor,
through the grace of our great Redeemer.