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When Church Life Gets Messy: How having a formal judicial process serves the local church.

Last month I wrote a post on the tension that sometimes arises between mission and more formal processes, like ordination, within a denomination.  This month, I would like talk about another formal structure set out in Sovereign Grace’s Book of Church Order, the judicial process.  Making a connection between a formal judicial process and the mission of the church might at first seem tenuous.  Even in a well establish church, a formal judicial process might seem to be another case of denominational overkill, let alone its benefit and necessity for a church plant.  However, my position is that a formal judicial process is vital for preserving and protecting the purity of our doctrine, elderships, and members of local churches so that we might be best positioned to carry out our mission to proclaim and display the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world around us.

Accountability and Protection

Before discussing the various ways a judicial process preserves and protects local churches, it’s worth noting that the judicial process is not solely punitive.  The judicial process does provide accountability when an elder is disqualified or when a team of elders drifts from key doctrinal distinctives or core tenants of the faith.  However, a judicial process also serves to promote unity, bring about reconciliation, give due process to an elder who is wrongly accused, and protect local church members from misapplied church discipline.  It works to redemptively hold men and women accountable for their sins while also working to protect and exonerate those who are being unjustly treated.   A formal judicial process provides a fair and clearly laid out process for walking through the inevitable challenges that arise in church life.

Here are three areas where a judicial process serves the local church

Purity of Our Doctrine

Doctrinal distinctives don’t change overnight.  The gospel isn’t lost in a generation.  But distinctives and core tenants of the faith can and will be lost in our local churches if we are not vigilant to preserve and protect them.  Last month I wrote about how ordination seeks to preserve and protect the doctrine of the local church by carefully examining each elder prior to ordination.  As helpful as this process it, it is insufficient to assure long-term doctrinal fidelity.  It is possible for an elder or a whole team of elders to, over time, shift doctrinally.  In order to protect the doctrinal purity of our local churches we must a formal process in place that is able to hold elderships and local churches accountable when they drift doctrinally.

We can plant and replant churches, build relationships, serve our communities, and study our culture, but if our message is compromised due to doctrinal drift, in the end what will we have to offer those we are reaching?  Even if we are sound doctrinally today, what steps are we taking to make sure that is true 25, 50, 100 years from now?  Who will be there when we are tempted to drift to call us back, hold us accountable?  What structure is in place to both protect and preserve the glorious truths of the gospel we are laboring to proclaim in our churches and to the world?

Purity of Our Elderships

The character and reputation of elders are what give them credibility to minister within the church, and are the measuring stick of how many outside the church view what it is to be a Christian.  Few things hurt local churches and the reputation of Christ more than the disqualification of an elder.  The pain of an elder failing publicly is only worsened when this failure is insufficiently addressed or addressed in a sloppy manner.

It is important to note that the mishandling of situations like this is not limited to insufficient consequences for an elder that has failed morally.  It can also be the mishandling of an elder that in the end is proven innocent.  Once the character and reputation of an elder are called into a question, whether guilty or innocent, his ability to lead and minister are significantly diminished, if not lost.  Having a judicial process that rightly applies 1 Timothy 5:19-22 is vital to carefully examining and disciplining an elder.  It is vital that charges against an elder are handled in such a way that the guilty elder is appropriately held accountable, and the innocent elder’s reputation is preserved, allowing him to continue minister to those within and without the local church without a cloud of suspicion.

I must add, at this point, that relationships are not a substitute for a formal process.  When things are going well, it’s hard to imagine how difficult and divisive sin can be.  Relationships among elders on a team and with other elders in a region are vital, and something we treasure at my local church and within our region in SGC.  Sadly, the failure of an elder is often accompanied by significant relational strain among fellow elders.  If relationship is your sole strategy for working through situations like these, you will find that it is insufficient to bear the weight of the conflict at hand.   It is at times like these that a formal process, carried out fairly and impartially, is a gift meant, not to replace relationship but to preserve it.

Purity of Our Local Churches

The failure of elders is a public reproach upon the gospel that rightfully receives attention from the world.  However, it is easy to forget that every single day we represent Christ to the world around us.  If it is true that elders are a measuring stick  of what it means to be a Christian, it is also true that the lives of members in our local churches are also a measuring stick.  Every single day we claim Christ and live out our lives before a watching world.

If Christians live in open sin before the world they too bring reproach upon the gospel.  It leads a dying world to question what hope is there in the gospel when those who profess to believe it live no differently than they do.  Paul in 1 Corinthians is concerned with this exact thing.  There was a man among the Corinthians who was living in open, unrepentant sin.  Paul strongly admonishes the church to deal directly with this issue for the sake of the man and for the sake of gospel witness to the world.  If a church fails to discipline someone who is openly and unrepentantly sinning, we as a denomination have a responsibility to hold that eldership and church responsible for their actions.

On the flip side of this, it is possible for elders to misapply church discipline.

They may, in an effort to work for the purity of the church, unfairly handle the discipline of one of their members, failing to follow a due process meant to care for this member in a redemptive manner.  And frankly, due to their own sin, they may unjustly exclude someone from the church  who is either innocent or who is better served through a less severe measure of discipline.  Members of our churches need to know that there is recourse they can take to challenge the misapplication of church discipline.  Our BCO sets out a process whereby they can contact elders outside their local church and appeal the church discipline process.

Conclusion

Church life is inevitably messy.  Christ’s church is a redeemed church, but it is also a church growing to be more and more like Christ.  Sin still dwells within in us.  In order for us to live in unity with one another and proclaim and display Christ to the world in a worthy manner, we must work to preserve and protect the purity of our doctrine, purity of our elderships, and purity of our local churches.  In order to do this we must proactively create processes that will serve us well for the long-term as well as during moments of crisis.  Doing so will more readily ensure that our mission to make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ will remain vital and strong for years to come.

A Gospel Dream: 100 New Sovereign Grace Churches, Per Region, in 10 years

I want to make a simple case: Sovereign Grace Churches can plant 100 churches per region in the next ten years, all because of our Book of Church Order.

Let me lay out a Gospel Dream: Imagine what would happen if every region in Sovereign Grace Churches committed to planting 100 churches in the next 10 years? You can divide this two ways, 10 new churches a year, or exponential growth, but the vision’s the same: 100 churches, per region, ten years.

Crazy? Keep reading.

Here’s the numbers

Let’s just work with round numbers: I’m not sure how many churches there are per region exactly, but let’s say there’s 8 regions, with 10 churches each.

If every church in Sovereign Grace committed to doing a church plant every two years, a region of 10 churches would be 180 churches in 10 years. That’s just plain exponential growth math. In 2 years, 10 churches becomes 20 churches. Those 20 churches now are all planting a new church in the next two years, which turns 20 into 40. And so on.

Imagine what that would do? Reach the lost. Strengthen the church. Glorify God. Build for mission. We could be over 10,000 churches globally in 20 years.

What if we don’t hit that? What if we don’t hit that number? Let’s say we only half it. Awe shucks, we’ll have only planted 50 churches per region in 10 years… We’ll have to console ourselves with only…what, a 600% increase in our number of churches? You get the idea.

Historic Objections

Maybe people read this dream and scratch their heads. Others may have a few questions. Let me raise a few and set them aside.

I think that SG churches have historically followed a big-church model for church planting that we need to adjust. By “big church” model, I mean: Sending 5-10 families off to another city to plant a worship service and build from there. This is a big church model because it requires a church of a certain size to send out a core team of 5-10 families and have anybody left afterwards.

Historically, this looks like a mini-hive model of planting (or a massive-hive-off, depending). I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s a model regardless. And it’s largely the only model we’ve followed. This, the majority of SG churches are left feeling like they could only ever hope to plant… someday.

If you look to the places in the world where mission work is growing fast and furious, things look very different. Small groups are the focal point of outreach, and they grow like Catholic rabbits. You see this reflected in the uprising of “missional” literature in the English speaking world. The idea is simple: Love your neighbors as yourself, live a life with the people of God that displays the beauty of the Gospel, and invite your friends in to share in that communal life with you. From there, trust God to do his mighty work of salvation. Fairly simple.

All you need to extend the mission of God is a few people who love Jesus, each other, and their neighbors, and voilà: a church plant. Seems rather simple to me.

If we are going to be serious and proactive in reaching our neighborhoods and the nations, we have to be open to lots of different types of models of planting. Our BCO allows for, and invites this ingenuity. So long as somebody’s not violation our shared values or BCO, in letter or spirit, lead on my friend.

This will mean that our old model of hive-off planting, which is only do-able by bigger churches, will become an option of the many in our tool box. It will also mean that the normal SGC church of 100-300 people can plant churches now, and do more regularly.

The BCO Requires It

Our Book of Church Order, may the hair on its toes never fall out, is in it’s 5th edition. The basic structure is simple: Elderships in regions lead on mission – National serves the work of churches.

National has put together a rather good ordination process, and some very helpful stages for planting. I’ve been though both recently, and while I’d recommend a few adjustments, they put us in a posture for planting that I’m not sure others realize. Imagine the moment right before Olympic sprinters sept out. That moment between gun fire and action. That’s where we are.

An example: Our new ordination process.

Take the ordination process for a second. We now have a rigorous process for ordaining men without having to send them to the Pastors College. They can be truly Sovereign Grace elders without having to pick up their lives, dislocate for a year, get back to their home churches, resettle, and then plant. I think the Pastors College is great, but it’s cumbersome to require all planters to got through it. If we trust the standards our Theology Committee has created (and um, having done it recently, it’s for real), we know that if a man has passed the ordination process, and his church feels he’s called to plant, that he’s ready to go. We don’t need to hold up some unspoken requirement that he get the PC stamp to plant. We’ve agreed to a process, developed it and affirmed it, and now let’s use it. A year or so for ordination, a year or so of a church planting internship and you have your new church plant ever two years.

Men have a clear path for ordination and eldership. Churches have clear direction for accountability. Planters have the ability to borrow elders from the region for stability in their churches. Planters receive coaching. Regions affirm ordinations. Mission advances with accountability and wise enthusiasm. Since church plants are sent with regional cooperation, we are not waiting for national to give green lights. They’re postured to serve the enthusiastic mission in churches local areas.

More lean and nimble than ever.

Because Sovereign Grace Church is now elder lead at a regional level, we are more lean and nimble for planting. We can plant at our own pace. We can ordain at our own pace. We can scheme new planting strategies for our own contexts, without being confined to historic planting methods.

What would be the payoff of such a method? The lost being saved. More churches being planted. The Gospel advancing.

Fellow Sovereign Grace Elders, can I ask you to seriously consider this vision? 100 churches in your region over the next 10 years. Your BCO has laid the ground work. The Gospel will bear fruit for the infolding of the nations. Will you have faith for the mission? Let’s aim high, and trust the results to God.

Lessons from a Church Plant

When I was in seminary I can remember reading Knowing God and telling a friend how interesting it is that J.I. Packer calls the word balance a “horrible, self-conscious word!”

At the time I found it strange that he would take a moment to sucker punch a word as innocent as balance but I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about. Even after learning more of his struggles with introspection I still don’t know fully his reasons for hating the word. However, in recent years I’ve come to appreciate my own disdain for the word as it relates to ministry.

Some context.

In a few months from now (Easter, 2016 to be exact) the church where I serve will be moving into an almost completed church building in the center square of our city of Frisco Texas. Frisco (a suburban city in north Dallas) has been consistently one of the fastest growing cities in America for well over a decade with Frisco Square being one of several draws for relocating families. Through its relentless commitment to developing retail, business, luxury apartments and townhomes, and being host to big events, Frisco is seeking to leverage the town square as one more reason to move here. Its Christmas event alone boasts 600,000 visitors annually.

About seven years ago when our church plant was only around three years old and still getting to know one another and getting used to setting up chairs in our elementary school, we were given this very expensive and undeveloped land. The details of the story of how this opportunity came about are beyond this post, but I hope to share more in the future. Suffice it to say—we’re still stunned.

Now—all of that is very exciting. As someone who has been a part of the church plant when we only had a small group of leaders in a rental house and were filling up coffee pots from the school water fountain, its just as amazing now as the day we received this gift. It’s one of those stories I had heard sometimes happens for church plants—but not one I would have ever imagined would happen to ours.

All of this is very terrifying.

I think we all feel like you do driving home from the hospital with your first newborn. You’ve been waiting nine months. You have been setting up the nursery at home for some time. But as you drive out of the parking lot it just feels so wrong that a respectable hospital is entrusting this child to you.

I realize that all of this may not sound like a problem to a bivocational church planter with speakers and flyers in the trunk of his car—struggling to build a core team. When you’re barely making rent for the movie theater and navigating how to handle questions about the Fifty Shades of Grey poster with the leader of your children’s ministry things like land donations can fall on deaf ears. I get that.

But whether you are called to revitalize an aging congregation, begin a new church plant, or lead a church to relocation or expansion—you will know that scary and wonderful and mundane place of trying to pursue balance—with all its dangerous pitfalls of introspection. Doing faithful ministry in a certain season while at the same time seeing the clock tick to get ready for something that feels bigger and beyond you is a dangerous calling. It’s a step by step discovery of the struggle with tensions that show up when you are seeking not just one value, but two (and sometimes three or four)—simultaneously.

Striving to preserve the past only or living for the church of the future that only exists in your head each comes with unique challenges—but no bruises. But bring both of those into the present—into the right now of pastoral ministry–and you learn how vulnerable you are to living too long in the past or the future. Only the tugs of failure help us grow to being faithful with little while preparing for growth, stewarding the small while seeking multiplication, striving for contentment while feeling called to something ambitious, and trying to live fully in today (and the troubles therein), while preparing for tomorrow.

Over the next few months we will be planning our grand opening and first year in a new location. As we step into the future I would like to go back to when our church had a really bad website (and nametags at the door) and share some things I’ve learned (and learning) related to the tensions every church planter or revitalizer experiences at some point as you grow. Not just the victories and good decisions—but the bad ones too.

Some of these posts will be broadly applicable to pastoral ministry in general, and some will be much more personal—things unique to me that I’ve been learning along the way. Regardless, I will seek to be as candid and honest as possible and eager to learn from your experiences as well.

And—I promise. I will not be fully balanced.

Red-tape, Denominational Bureaucracy, Ordination, and Mission

Recently Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC) went through the process of writing and adopting a new polity.  This polity is carefully defined in our Book of Church Order.  In our polity we define things like the office of elder, how elders are to relate to one another and the church, how elders are ordained, accountability for elders, how local churches within our denomination are to relate to one another, how local churches should walk through separating from our denomination, and processes for dealing with the discipline of church members, local elders, and local churches.  If you were to ask me about the value of such a document ten years ago, I would have scoffed at the need for such detail, probably making a comment about being charismatic and not needing to be tied down by all of the red-tape and bureaucracy of a denomination.  Having gone through a tough stretch in our denomination over the last 5 years, my tune has changed.  I not only see such documents as valuable, I see them as essential for the long-term health of any denomination.

However, with structure comes rules and processes.  Rules and processes take time, and they are inherently less flexible.  As a result, adopting a polity of this kind creates a tension between adhering to rules and procedures and the desire for immediacy, particularly when it comes to carrying forward the mission of the church.

Example:

Joe Church Planter lives in a strategic, un-churched area of the country where we have been chomping at the bit to plant a church.  He is gifted, educated, and already has a core group of folks regularly gathering who are fully on board with planting a church in their city.  Joe Planter also shares the values and vision of SGC, and really wants to plant a church with SGC.  Then he reads our BCO and discovers there are more than a few hoops for him to jump through if he wants to plant a church with SGC.  He will need to build a relationship with one of our regional leaders, get plugged into the national church planting process, walk through a period of mutual evaluation, walk through the ordination process, put together by-laws that are in compliance with our BCO, receive approval from the Regional Assembly of Elders (RAE), and then he can plant a church.  Say whaaa?!

Good grief, people, don’t you know we are on mission here?!  This guy is educated, gifted, in a high need area, and has a core group that is fired up.  This thing is ready to go.  The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, and you want to delay for how long in order to satisfy the requirements of your BCO?  Why all this red-tape?  Why all this bureaucracy?  In upcoming posts I am going to be addressing a number of items from the BCO, but I wanted to start with one mentioned above, ordination.

Of all of the processes outlined above, ordination is likely the longest one.  Why, when the mission is so pressing, when Joe Planter’s life is full with preparations for a plant, would we ask a man to take 6-12 months to study for and walk through our ordination process prior to planting a church with us?  Here are 3 reasons.

Elder’s Lives Matter.

Elders are not called to be superhuman.  They are by no means perfect.  However, they are called to lead their churches by teaching the truth of God’s Word while living lives that exemplify that teaching.  When pastors fail morally, they have a disproportionate impact on the spiritual well-being of those they care for, and mar the name of Christ before a watching world.  It is worth taking time to examine the lives of our elders to make sure, as far we are able, that their lives meet the requirements of 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.

Doctrine Matters.

It’s possible to be so distracted by the minutia of doctrinal distinctives that we miss the forest for the trees.  However, it is also possible to so downplay doctrinal understanding and clarity that we inadvertently diminish the glory of the God we are on mission to proclaim.  It is my subjective assessment that, often in the name of mission, we can downplay, even deride, the importance of theological training and clarity.  We rush the process, thinking that, “all that matters is the gospel.”

To put it another way, once Joe Planter has planted, his church is growing, and his obvious ability to gather and charismatically lead are on full display, what will be the content of his messages week after week?  What will the teaching diet of his church look like?  How will he help his church process the death of a child, a terrorist attack, infertility, and human sexuality?  How will he winsomely answer questions about how men and women relate in the church and in the home?  Will he know the questions to ask when a couple comes to him and says they have both been divorced and would now like to marry one another?  The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  That includes maturing, and caring for existing disciples who need elders that are doctrinally sound and able to teach and pastor them through all of the various struggles of this life.

Doctrine matters because it is the content every elder draws from when leading, teaching, and pastoring God’s people.  Our mission is more than gathering new disciples and starting new church.  It is also the maturing and deploying of existing disciples.  The training and doctrinal clarity of elders is what will give longevity and stability to any movement of churches seeking to be on mission for Christ.

Polity Gives Him a Voice. 

Our polity vitally connects us to the other churches within SGC.  When a man is ordained, he is not only vested with authority to lead his local church, he is vested with authority to influence the direction of our denomination.  The reason every man is examined by elders in the region, and is finally voted on by the Regional Assembly of Elders, is because that man, once ordained, has an equal voice with every other elder in that region.  He can serve on committees that rule on judicial matters, work to plant churches, examine and put forward candidates for ordination.  He also has a national voice, serving on our Counsel of Elders, national committees.  He even has the ability to propose changes to our Statement of Faith.  Much is entrusted to a man once he is ordained within SGC.  Joe Planter’s connection to SGC is more than relational support, denominational branding, and much needed funding.  He is a full participant in the extra-local life of SGC.  Doctrinal unity and clarity are vital to ensuring the long-term health of SGC.

Mission is pressing, but the costs of not carefully walking through the process of ordination are too high.  Lord willing this elder is in ministry for decades, and his church will likely far out last his ministry.  For decades to come, he and his fellow elders, will shape their church and life extra-locally within SGC for decades to come.  When the 12-18 process of ordination and preparation for planting are weighed in the balance against the value of moral purity, doctrinal clarity, and extra-local unity.  Slowing down, asking the right questions, and walking through the process is well worth the time invested.  And in the long run moral failure, doctrinal drift, and disunity are far more costly to the mission than the 12-18 months it takes to carefully walk through a church planting and ordination process.