Archives For Ecclesiology

CovenantHealthy churches have explicit pre-commitments in what they believe (confession), how they live together (covenant), and how they are governed (constitution). Of course there is more that constitutes a healthy church, but I would argue it is critical from the outset that a church make clear these commitments based on the Word of God.

I’m grateful to belong to a covenant community seeking to honor the commitments we have made to one another. As a community formed by the gospel, we seek to live together as repenters and believers. This important to remember when it comes to living out our covenant commitments because no one of us grounds our identity based on our sanctification or our ability to keep those commitments perfectly. Even the commitments themselves speak to this. For instances, God commands that we forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. That assumes that we live in such proximate intimacy that we are going to sin against one another and be offended/hurt by one another (the Bible expects this). The proper response (which the Bible expects also) is to lovingly engage the one who has hurt/offended us and seek gospel reconciliation by making peace through repentance and forgiveness. Others include bearing one another’s burdens (context is addressing a sinning brother) and loving in ways that records of wrongdoings are not upheld and hoping all things at all times is applied.

This is important to remember because we are in danger of misunderstanding grace-based church covenant and making it into a condition-binding contract. In a church contract, when the conditions are not met by other members in our church community, you feel that you are justified in leaving that congregation in pursuit of a more perfect community. The irony to such a response is that such a response is a sinful reaction that dishonors the gospel. The person may feel justified in leaving because their feelings were hurt or was sinned against, but such justification has nothing to do with living in light of our justification by faith in Christ.

How many people have left their church family because they got upset with someone and could not do Scripture tells us to do? How many people have left because their feelings were hurt, the preacher stepped on their toes, another member failed to show sympathy and concern in a moment of crisis, and so on? How many churches were started not as a new work but as a sin-laden schism because blessed peacemaking seemed beyond the reach of those harboring resentment, fear of man, and self-pity?

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small churchLast week, David Murray wrote a blogpost entitled, “Church Size: Is 150 the ‘Magic’ Number?” In this rather short article, David makes some rather large assumptions–assumptions I’m afraid that are all-too-often given unwarranted support. I am somewhat a regular reader of David’s blog and had the privilege of sharing a meal with this dear brother (along with Joe Thorn) at T4G this year. Though we have disagreed on things in the past (e.g., sermon delivery), I believe we enjoy a continued appreciation of God’s grace in each other’s lives. The issue of church size and the assumptions that accompany is another one where David and I disagree, and I think it is important enough to give an alternative take with reasons why.

Arguments and Assumptions

David’s main point is that small churches are richer in relationships than large churches. While David offers no biblical grounds for such an argument, he does make the following assumptions that I find problematic:

  1. David asserts that when a church becomes large (in this case larger than 150 which in my opinion is still rather small), they lose the greatest asset of all–rich relationships.  In most Reformed circles, the primary (if not only) structure of the church is the Lord’s Day gathering. If that is the case, then one might be able to understand why David’s assumption is plausible, but to have such a truncated ecclesiology creates even more problems (I will elaborate later).
  2. David contrasts a large church gaining “more respect, more money, and more activity” with small churches having the exceedingly more valuable commodity of relationships. This is (a) wrongfully assuming the motivations of large church leadership and (b) unnecessarily making a contrast between the two. I would happily want a church to grow to have more influence (respect) in the community we are seeking to impact, more money to invest in kingdom initiatives, and more activity in engaging the lost world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What leader would not want that AND rich, meaningful relationships?  In an effort to advocate for small church size, large church motivations are not charitably characterized–which makes the reader wonder if the small church size really has sufficient merits of its own.
  3. David argues it is hard to create and maintain rich and meaningful fellowship with a church more than 150 people. Again, this goes back to assumption #1, the assumption behind the assumption being that the church size is undergirded by a church structure (church gathered) as the dominant venue/vehicle for community to take place. Relational community can be maintained and cultivated in larger churches when other church structures and venues are available to body life.

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One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about leadership in the local church has to do with creating, cultivating, and contending for a gospel-centered culture in the church. This past weekend, I led a discussion in our “Introduction to Grace” membership class on this very thing. I began with Albert Mohler’s well-known case for theological triage. Membership interviews and membership classes are important to the life and health of a church for several reasons, not the least of which is the need to protect/content for a gospel-centered culture in your church.

Here’s what I mean by that. If Christians are looking to join your church (via transfer growth), it could very well be that there are 3rd Tier issues that they want to make 2nd Tier or even 1st Tier issues. Some people call them “single issue Christians.” There are others that are not so obvious and can sometimes be discerned by their approach to church being a “What do you have to offer me?” kind of attitude. Either way, they want to push upward their 3rd Tier preferences and make them 2nd Tier principles. Some of these preferential non-essentials are listed in the chart below.

So here’s the deal. If at any point you as a leader allow for 3rd Tier issues to advance upward in the culture of the church, then members will become centered on something other than the gospel and factions will ensue. If passions drive preferences, and preferences are not 2nd Tier issues, then church leaders must be clear that the passion to lead the church with a gospel-centered focus is greater than their passion to drive their preferences into the culture of the church. This is protecting the unity of the flock with a gracious spirit of saying, “That’s not going to happen among us. I’m sorry.”

This is why I believe it is important to be clear with the 2nd Tier. If your church is not clear on what defines you in what you believe (confession), how you live (covenant), and what you value most (core values), then you are living in the land of assumptions with an open invitation for any member to more explicit about their preferences than you are your principles. Without those gospel-guiding principles in place as filters to protect the unity of the church, the health and welfare of the church is in a vulnerable state.

Gospel-centered leaders do not have the luxury of being accepting of personal preferences as anything more than personal preferences. They have to front with the gospel explicitly and consistently and back that up with a godly intolerance for members to be united by any greater than the good news of Jesus Christ. They themselves must exhibit by their life and actions that the greatest common denomination in the fellowship of the saints is that our names are written in the heaven as blood-bought children of God.

For some churches, gospel-centered churches must guard against liberalism, which is the neglect or dismissal of 1st Tier doctrines. On the other hand, I believe in most cases leaders must guard against fundamentalism, which is the treatment as if all matters are 1st Tier issues. A real test of the diversity we are to enjoy is whether we can experience genuine fellowship with other Christians who see 3rd Tier issues differently than us.

Here’s how I like to think about it. The 3rd Tier issues ought always be in subjection to the 2nd Tier. The 2nd Tier issues ought always be in subjection to the 1st Tier. Gospel-centered churches major on the gospel (1st Tier), and members who care deeply about the unity of the church care about the 2nd Tier (and by virtue of that, the 1st as well). If that kind of order is not functional in the church, then what you are left with sadly will look similar to this…

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Tim Keller, in his new book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, writes about the triperspectival New Covenant nature of Christians united with Christ.

Jesus has all the powers and functions of ministry in himself. He ha a prophetic ministry, speaking the truth and applying it to men and women on behalf of God. Jesus was the ultimate prophet, for he revealed most clearly (both in his words and his life) God’s character, saving purposes, and will for our lives. Jesus also had a priestly ministry. While a prophet is an advocate for God before people, a priest is an advocate for the people before God’s presence, ministering with mercy and sympathy. Jesus was the ultimate priest, for he stood in or place and sacrificially bore our burdens and sin, and he now brings us into God’s presence. Finally, Jesus has a kingly ministry. He is the ultimate king, ordering the life of his people through his revealed law.

Every believer, through the Holy Spirit, is to minister to others in these three ways as well.

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In his newly published book, Gospel-Centred Leadership, Steve Timmis discusses what he calls “by far the most important responsibility of leaders.” What is it?

Culture creation.

Timmis writes,

“Every group, whatever its size or demographic, will naturally create its own culture within a short space of time. Those within the group will have a certain way of doing things and a certain way of relating to one another. They will have a certain outlook and set of expectations. Someone within the group, or one group within a larger group, will be particularly influential in that process of culture-creation. . . . An existing group will change its culture depending on the characters who come in. Leaders should therefore take the lead in creating a particular culture. If the leader isn’t setting the culture, he is not the ‘leader’–regardless of the title. Leaders need to know:

  • what kind of culture they want to create
  • what kind of relationship they want to see develop
  • what kind of priorities they want to see people take on board
  • what kind of expectations people are going to have of one another”

What Timmis argues is that every person in a leadership position should be proactive in creative, cultivating, and maintaining a gospel culture. He adds,

“What leaders need to do is create a gospel culture which will, always at some point, be at odds with the surrounding culture. . . . The ambitions and expectations of those outside the church will differ from those within the church: the gospel will shape those in the church instead of the tyranny of self. leaders need to take the lead in forming that gospel culture; it is not something that will happen naturally or inevitably.

This gospel culture not only needs to be created, but also sustained. A culture needs to be created where it is normal to know what the gospel has accomplished (the indicatives), and consequently how we are to live (the imperatives); a culture where people are constantly reminded of who they are in Christ. We need to remind on another of the essential truths of the gospel: that we are more sinful than we dare admit and more loved than we would ever dare believe. All the imperatives of the gospel (what we are to do) will flow out of these indicatives (what the gospel has accomplished). We will therefore forgive one another because we are forgiven much. We will want to be holy because we have been made in the image of God to be holy. These truths about who we are in Christ are going to be the main means by which leaders can shape a culture. 

This is an important issue because our surrounding culture fights to shape and define us. If the gospel is the defining feature of a group, then people are pastored more easily and pointed to Jesus more effectively. Problems become more acute when anything other than the gospel is the defining feature.” (bold-face added, italicized original)

What Timmis highlights in this section of his book is an aspect of leadership I think many pastors overlook. The culture of a community is more than an event or service, though it certainly encompasses those. It is the air we breathe, the environment we inhabit, the governing spirit of the community ethic. In the work of bringing renewal and revitalization of a church, creating a gospel culture has to be one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding things gospel-centered leaders can do.

For what it’s worth, I shared a process of crafting culture through a triperspectival framework (Steve, if you read this, don’t hate!). It might be helpful in giving some practical tracks to moving toward a gospel-centered culture in your church.

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