Protecting a Gospel-Centered Culture in Your Church

Tim Brister —  December 10, 2012 — 7 Comments

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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  • Chris Blackstone

    Thanks for this Tim. I’ve found time and time again that churches are unclear, sometimes even intentionally so, about their 2nd Tier issues. They can be so happy to receive in new members that they don’t take the time to actually learn about these members and how they might class with 2nd Tier issues, which are often what can rightfully separate gospel-believing churches. For example, when we joined a local SBC church that had women on the leadership team, I asked about it and came away thinking that it would change. 2 years, it hasn’t changed and has been reinforced, which led me to resign my membership. Had there been honest dialogue at the early stages about the differences between the church adn myself, things would be a lot easier for all involved.

    One blending of 2nd and 3rd Tier issues that gets tricky is worship style and a church’s practices. Disagreement on the “best” worship style isn’t typically problematic within a local church but when a local church has made a commitment in its practices to something with which you don’t agree and couldn’t see yourself agreeging, it’s OK to acknowledge they’re a gospel-centered church that just isn’t a good fit for you. Personally, I then put some responsibility of the leadership of that church to be able to point that person towards another local church that would be a better fit. It’s quite amazing how many church leaders are ignorant of the other evangelical churches around them. Churches need to clearly communicate what makes their particular expression unique and not try to hide or downplay it, both to current members and visitors. If a church’s members can’t say why their church does what she does, you’re in trouble.

    • Chris,

      Yes, it is to the detriment of the church to be unclear on 2nd Tier issues. I also think they should be able to mark 3rd Tier issues. As you mentioned about worship style, even leaders have preferences in the 3rd Tier that they would want to make prescriptive on a higher level, and the danger they face more than others is that they normally have the ability to make that happen!

      Gospel-centered churches should exhibit gracious hospitality for anyone to come (grace). They also should exhibit an intentional/deliberate pre-commitment to what God’s Word says we should be and how we should live (truth). If that happens, prospective members will get a healthy dose of both grace and truth.

  • Jerry Minor

    Fantastic visual of great importance. I spent the past week in NYC doing Disaster Relief, and we were housed in a Moravian Church. Their motto is: “In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things love.” Though I am sure that we would have differences in 2nd and 3rd Tier items, we were united in ministering together because of our agreement in the 1st tier arena.

    • Amen, Jerry. Great example and illustration of evangelical identity being fleshed out.

  • Tim,

    Great post!

    One question, is the diagram for use within the church or meant for Christianity as a whole.

    If it is for use within the church, the church’s confession and covenant would need to be marked 1st tier as those documents are fundamental, not optional, for church membership and practice. Would you agree?

    • Joshua,

      Yes, I would agree with that, but I would say it is also for Christianity as a whole because members of the local church are also members of the universal church (kingdom of God). So members of our particular church can enjoy meaningful fellowship with other Christians who disagree with us on 2nd Tier issues (think Mark Dever and Lig Duncan). The church documents are fundamental to 2nd Tier matters (related to church identity and unity) but not foundational to Christianity as a whole.

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