Sheep and their shepherds (4): so the church became the parachurch…
(Four in a series.)
Once I was sitting in a room filled with scores of employees at some splendiferously wealthy southern Presbyterian church in a large city in the deep south. The senior minister was an older and established friend of mine. He was a patrician. If you’re Presbyterian you’ll know what that is. I read it in a book last night. Anyhow, this patrician pastor had talked me into coming down to interview for the position of Associate Pastor of Christian Education at his church.
When Mary Lee and I first saw his church campus, the view left us breathless—and that was before we had been escorted into my friend’s office. It was a pastoral dream of a museum, filled with books, Old World sitting chairs, side tables, bookshelves, and a desk that made the Oval Office desk look shabby. The floor of his office was covered with a priceless oriental carpet. The sanctuary where my friend preached was a Gothic cathedral that could have been set down in any English city needing a place for an Anglican bishop to preside. It would have served his austere dignity quite well. No one would have guessed it was built in the New World by people on the losing side of Americans’ civil war.
During the days of our interviews, I was able to sneak away for a few minutes and go into the sanctuary. Entering the chancel area, I walked to the back side of the pulpit, approaching it as the preacher would as he began to preach. There affixed to the back side was a very large and perfectly polished brass plaque engraved with the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter’s description of his aim in his own preaching back in Kidderminster in the 1600s:
As a dying man to dying men.
Prior to our visit, I had asked for a bunch of tapes of my friend’s sermons and I thought to myself staring at that plaque, “now I understand.” This was a man who knew more about the Puritans than I would ever forget, yet each of his sermons I’d listened to had been less convicting than the one before it. But when I listened to the sermons, I hadn’t yet seen his church campus, office, and sanctuary. Or the neighborhood of this city and the size of the houses surrounding the church. It was all southern Presbyterianism at its finest expression.
The thought came to me: “I wouldn’t mind preaching as a dying man to dying men here in this place.”
One of my staff duties would have been serving as the liason between the church and the very large boys prep school housed in a beautiful old brick building on the church’s campus. I would also have supervised the several full time staff members leading the ministries centered on the church’s athletic fields and gymnasium who also had the job of scheduling the racquetball courts underground, beneath the gymnasium.
It was the close of the interviewing process and one thing remained: my friend was introducing us to his scads of staff members and he felt the need to try to bridge the gap between these two northerners, Tim and Mary Lee Bayly, and the southerners we would be working with. After introducing us to the twenty or so we hadn’t already met, my friend talked about his time pastoring in another state in the deep south earlier in his ministry. Publicly, he recounted some of the things he had learned during his time in that prior church. Then, turning to us, he said, “you know, the thing I’ve learned is that, down here in the south, only the women are allowed to be direct.”
I knew Scripture commands pastors to “endure hardship like good soldiers of Jesus Chirst,” but this was one hardship I thought might kill me. How would the Apostle Paul minister in a place where the first rule spoken of was that he must let his wife be the direct one? How would he do his writing? His preaching? How would he have been able to amass his list of sufferings if he had never given offence to anyone in the course of his pastoral care and preaching?
How would he have been able to warn anyone anytime, let alone day and night with tears, if he wasn’t supposed to be direct? I sat there finding insurmountable objections to coming and working there with my friend, and they grew by the second. No. Never. Impossible. My soul would die.
Now you understand my saying that leadership—true spiritual leadership—is the single biggest no-no in the ministry today. Every seminary’s central curriculum is that if you ever have conflict in your church, you have failed.
In our last installment of this series, we talked about the humiliation of the pastors out there under the blazing midday sun of Eastern Africa. The indignity of the setting may possibly have been unintentional, although I have often wondered about it. Anyhow, you’ll remember that I was doing my best to pull their indignity out into the open where we could talk about it, so I’d asked them the question. “What do you have that John Doe doesn’t have?”
I had to repeat the question several times.
There was nervous laughter. A couple pastors across the circle from me said something under their breath and laughed quietly. I probed: “Hey, what did you guys just laugh at? What’s funny?” I was smiling hoping they’d share their joke with the rest of us.
They didn’t answer, but continued to laugh—now a little nervously.
“No really, what’s funny?”
“Well,” the one on the right responded, “he said you ask a bad question.”
“Why is it a bad question?” I asked.
Then things got tense. They became sullen, although not at me. They began to open up.
“Nothing!” one man answered. “We have nothing John Doe doesn’t have.”
Several others made comments, and it was apparent he’d spoken for them all. As they saw it, John Doe had everything and they had nothing. Just as I’d thought.
So I doubled down on the question, trying to reassure them that I was convinced they had something wonderful John Doe lacked. It seemed impossible to them, but finally I got a couple more hopeful answers. I don’t remember what they were, but only that they were not the answer I was looking for.
Finally one of the two pastors across from me looked at me with a very serious expression on his face and haltingly responded, “the sacraments?” Yes, it was only barely a question.
“Yes,” I said, “the sacraments! Exactly right. John Doe doesn’t have baptism or the Lord’s Supper!”
Then I asked another question: “And because John Doe doesn’t have the sacraments, what else doesn’t he have?”
They were stumped on that one until I told them the answer: “Church discipline.”
Then I tried to explain to them how weak and impotent evangelism and discipleship are when you can’t baptize, administer the Lord’s supper, or admonish, rebuke, and excommunicate.
Our Lord has given baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the power of the keys to His Bride, the Church, only. Only. The very definition of the parachurch is that it is NOT the Church. And what makes it NOT the Church?
It cannot, it may not, it will not fulfill our Lord’s command to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It will not make any decision who may be baptized and who may be invited to the Lord’s Table. Thus oppositely, it will not make any decision who may not be baptized and who may not eat at the Lord’s Table. And why not.
How poverty stricken and weak the work of parachurch leaders is facing the promise of our Lord given only to his pastors and elders:
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18, 19)
Two things before we bring this installment to an end.
First, as our conversation continued there in East Africa, the pastors seemed a bit encouraged by the truth they had something John Doe didn’t, although none of them clapped and jumped up and down about their privilege of exercising church discipline. No pastor does.
Yet the largest part of their sullenness remained and a few minutes later it came out. They remained bitter over the indignity of their position relative to John Doe’s position and one man spoke for them all. He gave me in all my North Americanism a piercing and angry look, challenging me: “But people in the United States won’t give us money because we’re pastors of churches.”
You see, I was money.
Then he added what he thought I might not understand: “Our churches are in denominations and Americans only give money to non-denominational organizations!”
You’re wondering how I responded to that challenge, I’m guessing, but I’m not going to tell you. Not now, at least. You can be sure I didn’t commiserate with him at this tragedy, though. Not in the least. It is His Own Bride whom Jesus promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against.
Not nondenominational parachurch organizations.
Yet I certainly didn’t argue with him about the truth of what he’d said. All the money and influence and prestige and power and fame and money—did I say money yet?—of American Christianity has been pouring into nondenominational parachurch organizations for many decades now, and it’s much the same in African missions as it is here Stateside. Generally, American people and money flowing to missions overseas reproduce American sins and errors. Take feminism, for instance.
Which brings me to my second and final point. We pastors have realized that all the money and prestige and power flows away from the church because of the divisiveness of doctrine, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. We were slow in the uptake, some of us, but now most all of us have learned that, if we want to be successful, we need quickly to turn our churches into nondenominational parachurch organizations.
Without the proper administration of the sacraments. Meaning never tell anyone “no.”
Without the right preaching of God’s Word. Meaning never preach. Just teach and “let the Holy Spirit do the work of conviction.” Don’t preach boldly. Don’t preach to the conscience.
Without the proper exercise of church discipline. No warning house to house, night and day with tears for us anymore.
We pastors have all gone astray. We have turned each of us away from being direct with our sheep. It started quite a while ago and is almost fully implemented now.
My friend hadn’t invented this evasion of our duties during his pastoral ministry in rich southern churches. The particular form of the evasion may have been something southern Presbyterians helped teach him. Yet again, maybe it wasn’t the church that taught him? Maybe he learned it way back in seminary where most of us also learned it. Now he was simply making it clear to me what boundaries he and his other staff pastors observed as they taught and preached and shepherded their flock. Their filthy rich flock.
What an awful plaque they had to preach facing each Lord’s Day. It must have pierced their souls every time they mounted the pulpit.
This church wasn’t Baxter’s Kidderminster where good Pastor Baxter met with each of his church families once a year to examine the condition of their hearts. Each year.
Read J. I. Packer’s introduction to Baxter’s classic on pastoral ministry, The Reformed Pastor.” It is the most helpful book I’ve ever read that is not the Bible. Packer knows his church history and he says Kidderminster under Baxter’s preaching and pastoral care is maybe the high point in faithfulness of pastoral ministry and the fruit of the Holy Spirit everywhere evident because of that ministry.
Readers might argue this is because Baxter’s church was small and he had the time to give individualized pastoral care, but they’d be wrong. Baxter’s church was over 1,500 souls. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
No, our problem isn’t numbers or time. Our problem is we don’t want to suffer. We want numbers without responsibility. We want money without church discipline. We would never say what the Apostle Peter said to Simon Magus when he tried to buy God’s anointing with money:
May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity. (Acts 8:20-24)
Consequently, we would never have the joy of hearing Simon’s humble response to Peter’s rebuke:
Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.
We pastors aren’t dying today. It’s the church that is dying and it’s for lack of the right preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacraments, and the right exercise of church discipline.
Wheaton students in the forties took their love for Jesus and founded endless parachurch organizations. Calvin sent out pastors to die in France, but Billy Graham sent out flyers and buses and stadiums and broadcasts.
Then, when people came forward, he sent his converts off to godless pastors and priests in local churches in case they needed some “follow up.” Billy made sure to provide high visibility to those godless pastors and priests by placing them prominently next to him on the platform at his crusades. Ask Martyn Lloyd-Jones about Billy’s London crusade. Ask my Dad about the Pharisees Billy sent his converts to here in the United States.
Billy Graham and Bill Hybels and Bill Bright and George Verwer and Rick Warren and the pastor of the megachurch just down the street from us taught us our lesson. Billy Graham didn’t allow doctrine to divide, so why should we? Operation Mobilization and Bill Hybels and Tim Keller and Cru were all pushing women preachers and women leading men in the church, so why shouldn’t we? Campus Crusade didn’t have to say no to anyone’s baptism or participation at the Lord’s table, so why should we? Cru doesn’t have to fence (give warning words) at the Lord’s table, so why should we?
Who needed the negative karma of warning people house to house, day and night? Who needed the hassle and risk of admonishing rich, fat, and complacent evangelicals who hated authority? With “tears”? Is the Apostle Paul serious?
Who needed preaching to the conscience? Who needed public censures? Who needed indefinite suspension from the Lord’s supper? Who in my congregation ever got sick or fell asleep because he didn’t “discern Christ’s body” at the Lord’s table?
Certainly no one I knew of. All my people were quite healthy. You’d hardly guess how many of us ate at His table while in bondage to theft, gossip, drunkenness, incest, rebellion, gluttony, and bitter strife.
At church, our motto has become “don’t worry, be happy.”
Everyone’s welcome to a Cru large group meeting. Everyone’s welcome to Bible Study Fellowship. Everyone’s free to pay their registration for the Ligonier Conference and Gospel Coalition’s mass crusades.
Who needs Christ’s Bride, Her sacraments, or Her precious discipline?
“Shall I not punish these people?” declares the LORD, “On a nation such as this Shall I not avenge Myself?”
An appalling and horrible thing Has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule on their own authority; And My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?” (Jeremiah 5:29-31)
[This is four in a series of posts on the difficulties church officers, particularly pastors, face today in our work guarding the flock our Lord purchased with His Own precious blood. Our Lord said He was the “Good Shepherd” Who gave up His life for the sheep. We want to be good shepherds like our Chief Shepherd, but it is hard. It may help us toward faithfulness to discuss some of the challenges we face. That is my hope in this series—that as I tell of some challenges I’ve faced in my work, I may be an encouragement to others facing similar challenges. It’s a small goal. Please pray for me.]