Number Our Days
Elders are a part of the biblically ordained offices for the New Testament church and, while many churches use elders poorly, this does not negate their value or their biblical import. Elders only work when they work. I offered several examples of prominent churches who had elders but some of the very individuals who committed themselves to serve as elders by accepting the position in a local assembly, rejected their office when the elder collective decided against their views, and they, for all practical purposes, abandoned the elder principle and exposed their churches to chaos, some publicly and others privately. Elders only work when they work. A tautology? Well, not really. Elders only work when those who are committed to the practice remain committed to the practice in trying times. Every church experiences difficult times of one sort or another. Elders are a part of God’s good gift to his churches to help lead and feed the flock, especially through stormy waters. So, what does the Bible teach about elders?
Elder plurality is an important part of this instruction. How many elders does any particular assembly need? There are plenty of proponents of elders who argue that a church must have an elder plurality regardless of church size. God never intended the church to be ruled by a single pastor but to be led by multiple elders. “Shared leadership has the benefits of balancing people’s weaknesses, lightening the workload, and providing accountability.” Amen and amen! Evidence of this may be found in Acts 11:30, the church at Antioch, which had multiple elders who commissioned Paul and Barnabas to Gospel ministry; Acts 15 which discusses Paul’s visit to the church at Jerusalem and his meetings with the “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22 and 16:4). Πρεσβύτερος, the Greek word from which we get our word elder, is in the plural in each of these verses, πρεσβύτεροι. Also see Acts 20:17 where Paul calls for a meeting of the elders of the church at Ephesus to assemble before him for discussions and Acts 21:18 where Paul returns to Jerusalem and meets with the elders. Mention should also be made of Tit 1:5 where Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders (pl) in every place (singular). James instructs the sick to call for the elders of the church to pray for the one sick (Jas. 5:14) while Peter instructs “elders among you” not to dominate their flock (1 Pet 5:1) calling himself an elder. Clearly many biblical churches had multiple elders. Doesn’t this settle the matter? Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus had multiple elders so churches today who wish to follow the biblical pattern should have multiple elders. Absolutely . . . almost. Are churches without an elder plurality, churches out of order?
The real issue to be addressed is the question of why these churches had multiple elders? Was the intention of the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of Acts, to teach prescriptively that all New Testament churches have multiple elders, or is God recording in his Word the practical outworking of NT churches who recognized that as these churches grew, so too did their elder requirements. Large churches need more elders, smaller churches need fewer. So how many elders does a church need? As many as it needs. In the same way that the church at Jerusalem chose seven men to be the first deacons because two men were insufficient to meet the needs of the group, as churches increase in the number of people to be ministered to, there is a compelling need for more elders. Churches need as many elders as churches need!
Another consideration for the churches at Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus was the nature of these churches themselves. How did they meet, all together as large city churches with one in each location? Hardly. They met in houses, smaller house churches or small groups. The logistics of gathering the saints in these early days suggests that rather than one mega church in each city, there were multiple smaller gatherings requiring an expanded elder network to provide spiritual care. The story of Aquila and Priscilla certainly suggests this—they had house churches in Ephesus and Rome (1 Cor 16:19 and Rom. 16:3). This is an explanation for why Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every town. The word πόλις signifies a population center as opposed to a rural area. It could be a city or a town. The important issue is that it was a population center. Again, no mega churches were in view here. More likely it was house churches. Hence the need for multiple elders.
I am not arguing that since today larger numbers of believers can meet in big church edifices, single pastors are all that is necessary. I am only suggesting that the city churches of the New Testament aren’t comparable to the big mega churches of today. They were the sum total of believers in Antioch, etc., not ABC Church at the corner of Appian Way and Rome Boulevard that was large enough to gather thousands of worshippers. Lakewood Church of Houston meets in the former Comcaq Center, former home to the Houston Rockets. The building can hold nearly 17,000. One man may be able to preach to 17k people, but one man cannot shepherd even a fraction of that number. Elder plurality in the early churches was driven by need. A church needs as many elders as it needs—in most cases, this means a plurality of elders.
What about a newly planted church? Should it begin with elder plurality? That depends. I remember reading in Christianity Today about the formation of Stonebriar Church in the Dallas area when Chuck Swindoll was president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chuck decided in 1998, that he would start a Bible study at a country club. Two hundred people showed up for the first meeting. The next week, attendance doubled. It doubled again the following week. Within a few months, the church was running two thousand. Clearly from the beginning of this mega church, elder plurality was needed. How would a church even vet elders in this kind of rapid growth situation? There was a large SBC church in our area in the early 2000s that was planted to be a mega church. It had a full company of leaders from the beginning chosen ahead of time and paid for by the area association.
Few churches start like this today, especially in countries with small Gospel presence. American mega churches with superstar preachers may require large numbers of elders, but small fledgling churches in virgin territory may take a while before the congregation has a qualified plurality of men to serve as elders. Elder plurality is a goal to be aspired to, but not a minimum qualification in forming a church. A congregation needs as many as it needs. From the beginning, the church planter’s main job is to disciple leadership from whom the new assembly may select other elders and deacons. You have to start somewhere. Shared leadership is the goal to be sure.
I would make the same argument for deacon plurality. If one understands Acts 6 as the formation of the early diaconate, then the number chosen was based on the needs of the group—in Jerusalem’s case it was determined that seven men were needed. If this teaches us anything, it teaches us that a church needs as many deacons as it needs. In the early stages of church planting, a small group of six families may not need any deacons but it will become apparent that if the church grows at all, deacons will soon be necessary. Again, the church planter may need to disciple a man or several men toward becoming deacons. In the Acts church, many of the converts had come from Judaism and were almost “prequalified” to be deacons. They had been faithful Jews who became faithful Christians. I emphasize this because my esteemed and learned theology teacher used to argue that a church couldn’t start until it had a pastor and a deacon (or two). Yet many global churches start with just a handful of converts who need discipleship from non-Christian backgrounds. Diligent training and discipleship will bring qualified leadership to light in time, hopefully short time if the church is to grow.
For those who start a church and yet have no elders or deacons from the beginning, the church planter should seek the input of the men who attend, and he may find that he has qualified men already. Even in a small church with a single elder and no deacon, the pastor or elder need not act like the lord or boss. He would benefit from consultation with the church men. The goal is shared leadership not a single captain who has absolute authority over the whole ship.
I have a friend who has taught pastoral theology for years who doesn’t like the notion of “lay” elders. In other words, the way to determine what a church needs is, as it grows, when will it be able to afford more dedicated workers? Of course, dedicated elders are a lofty ideal and, elders who can be provided for by the assembly is the goal, but in church planting, even the first elder may have to work to provide for his family. Does this make him less qualified to be an elder? At various points in my ministry, I hung drywall and worked as an EMT out of necessity. If a man is going to be a “lay” elder, regardless of his work outside church, he must commit himself to do the requisite work in the assembly to carry out elder function.
It is important to remember that elders are not a panacea to solve all the problems within a local congregation. Elders are good and the multiplication of them should accompany the growth of the church. But simply having them will not insure that a church will weather the storms that come her way. Elders only work when they work . . . when those who serve as elders are committed to follow the duties of an elder. In recent weeks, I have pointed out churches that have had elders but either some elders refused to work with the other elders, or some elders refused to follow the decisions of the majority. In these cases, the churches have been thrown into turmoil. Elders only work when they work. What about arguments for a single pastor as the best model? I will address this question next week. May God grant his grace to do things decently and in order to his glory!
Last week I began a series on elders in Baptist life by describing my own church journey. I have never been a member of a church that had elders but if I were to start a church today, I would definitely do so on an elder model. Seems like an odd position . . . to believe in elders, but not now or ever to have been a member of a church with elders. Let me explain. In a later essay, I will discuss my view on elder plurality. Coincidentally, as I began to write this essay, word came out about a church in South Carolina whose elders recently accepted the resignation of its pastor, effective immediately, citing unspecified conflict with those elders, only to have him return to the church pulpit the following Sunday after the congregation decided that it wished for him to stay. The only way he is willing to stay was if the church “gets healthy” by changing its governing structure from elders, to vesting control of the church into the hands of the pastors, with the oversight of outside counselors. For now, the pastor is taking time off to “get healthy” himself, but he has agreed to return to the pulpit if his conditions are met. The pastor cited the church’s governance as the reason the church never went past about 1500 in attendance and used the illustration of a man who has been married three times—either he makes poor choices in the women he married, or the problem is not with the women but with him. The church will celebrate twenty-nine years since it was founded this fall, and it has had three lead pastors during that time, none of whom left under a scandal. The problem must be the governance structure—the elders are keeping the church from growing as it would under the proper (pastor-controlled) leadership.
The church’s elders resigned but rescinded their resignation because of governance issues, while there is a plan to restructure the church. Now there are two parties vying for control. The elders have accused the former pastor of breaching his commitment to leave as a condition of his generous one-year salary severance package. Concerns over the appropriateness of pursuing this through the courts are in the minds of some. Dissidents have started a Facebook page to share their concerns which has over 740 members but is a closed group. Needless to say, this story has been criticized by some and is a sad illustration that elders only work when they work.
At this point, I make no judgment as to which side is in the right. The church’s statement about elders is well written and in accordance with biblical teaching. The church website outlines (as of August 25, 2021) the function and authority for elders.
BIBLICAL AND PRACTICAL FUNCTIONS OF BEACH CHURCH ELDERS
Doctrine – Elders are to teach, guard, and advance God’s truth by holding strong to the written revelation of God – the Bible – and calling everyone else to do the same. Doctrine is to be accurately and soundly expressed by the Scriptures and then taught and applied to individuals in ways that instruct, exhort, correct and equip us to walk in the truth, focused on Christ Jesus, illuminated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Discernment – Elders are guided by the Spirit regarding His will and way for His Body, the church. They are under-shepherds following Christ’s leading – The Chief Shepherd – and with discernment then leading His people.
Direction – Elders have a biblical and practical responsibility to provide direction for the overall ministry and the ministry leaders of the church. This would include determining what God would have us do, why and how He would have us do it, and who would be responsible for the different aspects of accomplishing His will in these initiatives. Biblical, clear, practical, and measurable direction for the overall church is part of the elders function.
Discipleship – Elders are to be models and reproducers of Bible-centered, Christ-focused, Spirit-energized transforming disciple makers.
Biblical Reconciliation/Restoration – Elders are called to lead out in teaching and equipping the body to live in harmony and unity. They are to live and lead as those who help restore relationships, deal with sin in pursuit of forgiveness and healing, and establish ways for the body to grow stronger and healthier in all aspects of their lives.
Shepherding – Protecting, living alongside (knowing!), guiding, feeding, etc.
This accords with the clear teaching of Scripture. Elders are the best understanding of the Biblical narrative, yet I have never been a part of an elder-led church. I didn’t come to this conclusion until more than two decades in ministry. I mentioned previously that Nine Marks of a Healthy Church was my first real acquaintance for elders in Baptist life. My background and experiences were all under the pastor led/pastor-controlled model. Most of the guys I knew led with a light touch, although there were plenty of stories of churches in my circles where the pastor controlled everything. The founding pastor at Emmanuel was a simple Bible school man with a limited education. I was told that his wife would take the offering plates and “dump the contents into her purse.” Yet there was not a whiff of scandal surrounding this brother or his ministry. That’s just the way they did things in the 1950s. I informed my deacons on several occasions, that while I reserved the right to make certain decisions, even vetoing theirs, I hoped that I would never have to exercise that right. Thankfully, I never did. Of course, that is not a statement I would make today. The men were gracious and understood that it wasn’t my intention to lord over them. I just held a high view of pastoral authority. I was thinking of the spiritual direction of the church, not mundane things like the color of the carpet. I couldn’t care less what color the church was, I only wished for consensus on the part of others.
I have known of pastors that made virtually all decisions concerning their church. The voice of the congregation is seldom heard, and his will is the only will that mattered. Decisions were made in advance of church meetings and taking a vote of the congregation was merely to ratify previously made decisions and give the appearance of congregationalism. Of course, elders aren’t necessarily tasked with color decisions, but what exactly is their role? I will come to that in time.
How did I come to believe in elders, but never be a part of a church with elders? I began to consider elders as the best model for church leadership, as I taught at a seminary where membership in the church that started the seminary was a requirement. The church has always been pastor led. I happily submitted to that situation and tried to be careful as I taught ecclesiology, never wanting to appear to be critical of the church, either in its theology or in its praxis. I thought it would be unethical to do so and tried to exercise caution. Nevertheless, biblical elders became clear to me.
So why didn’t I just change churches? While I believed that elders (plural) and deacons is the intent of the Pauline texts (e.g. 1 Tim. 3), it seemed to me that many Baptist churches, although not having men whose formal title was “elder,” in practice, functioned with de facto elders. The pastoral staff and some deacons shared the spiritual ministry of the flock. This raises an important question. How many elders does a church need? The Bible doesn’t specify a certain number of either elders or deacons. Granted some churches in the New Testament had multiple elders—Ephesus—but the number wasn’t specified or prescribed (Acts 20:17). If one understands Acts 6 as the beginning of the diaconate, then the church at Jerusalem needed seven men to serve for a congregation of three thousand. Why seven? That was how many they needed to get the job done. Given that there is no set number for either office, it seems to me that a church therefore needs what it needs. A small assembly may need only one of each, while a larger congregation may need several elders and several deacons with the numbers expanding as the congregation increases in size.
Simply put, a church needs what it needs! How many individuals are needed to care for the spiritual and material welfare of the assembly? The most compelling reason for elder plurality is that one man cannot shepherd many people well. What is the number of people one man can shepherd? There are varying opinions on this, but common figures suggest 1:100 congregants or 1:150. Obviously, the more people in the assembly, the greater the needs of that assembly. What if a church cannot afford multiple elders? Do all elders/pastors need to be paid? Plenty of ministry men are bi-vocational out of necessity. Why not use deacons to assist? They are to be spiritual men (Act 6:3). Why can’t they help spiritually care for the flock? This is the very thing I tried to do in Windsor. We brought on a seminary student (unpaid) to assist us as well, but I looked for spiritual men in the assembly to help shepherd the flock. Weren’t these men de facto elders? Of course!
My ecclesiology might have been weak on paper, but in practice, it was more biblical. Admittedly, churches with multiple staff do not necessarily operate on the elder model. Many pastors consider their colleagues as men that can simply be hired and fired at their discretion. They are accountable to the pastor and only indirectly to the congregation. They are really assistants to the pastor. They assist in decisions only secondarily. The lead senior pastor makes the important decisions, sometimes with their input, but often without it. One way this works out in practical terms is that when a new pastor assumes leadership, he hires his own staff, men with his philosophy, while existing staff members are released to look for new ministries. This would not ordinarily happen with an elder led church.
Next week I will delve deeper into the nature of elders, their qualifications and duties. I also need to address the plurality of elders. Must all church have multiple elders? Until then, may we seek to think biblically about the church. It’s Christ’s and he gets to set the terms of its structure.
My introduction into Baptist life came in the mid-1970s when as a 15-year-old youth, I started attending a Southern Baptist church in Marietta, GA, Calvary Baptist. The church was then pastored by John Darnell, and he began to discuss with me my relationship with the Lord. Having trusted Christ through the influence of a Gideon’s New Testament, he informed me of my need of baptism (immersion) and soon I was dunked in a tank in the church basement. I became a “Baptist” because I got all wet!
I didn’t really know what a Baptist was, but I began to hear Bible preaching for the first time in my life. Before long, I was invited to a youth prayer meeting sponsored by another church, Piedmont Baptist Church, then under the capable leadership of Clifton C. Duvall. I was inclined to attend these youth Bible study and prayer meetings because some of my high school friends attended, especially those of the more delicate gender! Yes, I went to a church meeting for the wrong reason. At that meeting, as an eleventh-grade male, I met the young lady who would eventually become the love of my life about seven years later.
I went pretty regularly and started hanging out with the youth group. I attended and later joined the church. I began singing in the youth choir. I had a youth pastor in those days, Greg Merritt, who went on to become the first 21st century president of the SBC. Not sure why Greg started going by James, but I knew him as Greg. Anyway. it was a decent group of Southern Baptists who loved the Lord. Bro. Cliff was the pastor and there were deacons, some who smoked (one brother told me he started smoking before it became a sin) and some who didn’t. I couldn’t say how qualified they were as spiritual men. I was new on my discipleship journey, so such things were above my pay grade. The important thing is that there were no elders in the church. Just deacons and what they did, I really didn’t know.
I attended this church until college. At Bob Jones University, I began to hear that the SBC was full of “liberals.” Well as an eager Bible college student with a desire to learn the Word, I thought who wants to hang with liberals? (There is a gap here recounting just how I got to BJU and why which is worth rehearsing but would take too long to tell and doesn’t contribute to this essay). That summer I worked at a Christian camp and decided to join the church where the camp director was a member, a good independent Baptist church in Madison, IN, today Grace Baptist Church, pastored by my long-time friend Joel Almaroad. This was now the third church of which I had been a member and like the previous two, it also had deacons but no elders. Bro. Joel had been a part of a church in south Georgia that was Southern Baptist in its origination and it had deacons but no elders. He grew up in a church with deacons only, so that’s the kind of a church he started.
I remain connected with Grace through my university years, eventually returning to Indiana to serve as an assistant pastor. As a student living in Greenville, I attended Mt Calvary Baptist Church for a while, under the new ministry of Jesse Boyd, an ex SB man who had dropped out of his PhD at New Orleans over the liberalism of Frank Stagg. What made Mt Calvary unique was that they had elders. Huh? I thought that was a Presbyterian thing. Seemed that some Baptist churches had elders. I don’t think that church was elder run, but elder led. I attended a variety of churches over my six years in Greenville, partially to see how others did ministry. Some of these churches were out of town and I served in them for the school year, but Mount Calvary was the only church I had ever attended with elders.
I finished my studies at BJ in 1980, earning both a B.A. and an M.A. I had gained a good basic grasp of the Bible, some Greek, less Hebrew. I had no church history, no pastoral theology beyond what incidental training happened in a class called “Preacher Boys.” After five years of preparation, I was ready to go out and conquer the world. (Well, maybe not!) Boy did I have a lot to learn! My fiancée and I were married after grad school and we were accepted to go to Canada to work among the indigenous peoples in a place called Hole River in Manitoba. It was a great place to live, at the mouth of the Wanipigow River. I could hunt and fish all I wanted. The people generally accepted our ministry, and we are still “connected” to many today, thanks to Facebook. I could give a decent bible study, but how to plant and grow a church? Not much hope there. As far as discipleship and ecclesiology, I was bewildered.
In four years, our ministry came to an end, and we decided to go further north to a town in Alberta, High Level, where we spent four years trying to establish the MacKenzie Highway Baptist Church. We were moving toward constituting the church when Joshua, our youngest, was born, ten weeks early, so after he came home from the hospital, we began to consider a change in location. Clearly, I needed more training and Joshua needed better health care. We decided to go to Windsor, Ontario so he could get the care he needed and so I could attend the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Thankfully at Detroit, many of the holes in my education were filled in—church history, Baptist theology and polity, counseling, etc. I also pastored a small church in Windsor, Emmanuel Baptist. Again, as has been the case in my journey, in all these places—High Level, Windsor, Detroit, I was following a pastor/deacon approach to ministry with no consideraton of elders. We had deacons at Emmanuel. As far as I know, that’s all they ever had.
Sometime during my years in Windsor (the 1990s), I became aware of a booklet Mark Dever had written, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (1997). It wasn’t the book that it is today, just a pamphlet, outlining Mark’s ecclesiological views including elders. Here was the first real biblical argument for elders. I don’t know when 9Marks began having weekenders where this approach to ecclesiology was discussed, but I never had a chance to attend one. Nor did I remain at Emmanuel long enough to think about moving the church toward elders. There was pushback in my circles over the idea anyway, but as time went on at Emmanuel, I tried structuring the deacon meetings toward what I later learned was at least elder-like (whether intentionally or because I just thought our spiritual men should do more spiritual ministry). We talked about the spiritual needs of the assembly and prayed for members who struggled. We tried to dispense with the business of the church (financial issues) early in the meeting so we could devote our time to important issues (soul care). I also encouraged the godly men at the church to take a more active role in the ministry of the Word. I had several good men who could fill the pulpit and they gladly did so.
I tried not to press my agenda for the church but always wished for consensus in our meetings. Emmanuel was a blue-collar church. Some of the men worked at automotive plants in town and were used to “punching out” at the end of their shift. When quitting time came, the work stopped. One of my predecessors joked with the men that they should bring their lunch to church in case the sermon went long. The expectation was that the church should stop by noon whether the sermon was done or not. I suggested at one deacon’s meeting that we talk to the church to see if they would agree to shift the Sunday AM meetings by a half hour so that the morning service would begin at 10:30. That way no matter how long I preached, we would be sure to be done before noon. Of course, we could have just made a decision to move the meeting time, but we believed in congregationalism, so we wanted congregational input. After a few weeks of discussing things among the members and discussing this among ourselves, we decided that it was not in the best interest of congregational harmony to try to change the service times. This is how we tried to manage things—get a sense of the congregation’s attitude before we moved forward with major issues.
During my time there, I came up with the bright idea that we needed a new piano. I did some research and presented my findings to the deacons. The intent was then to gauge the interest of the congregation before a formal recommendation was put to a vote. But the issue never went to the assembly because the leadership couldn’t reach a consensus. There was resistance over the cost and the timing of the project. Therefore, the idea was withdrawn. Ironically, a few years later, we did buy a new piano with congregational approval. Later in my pastorate, I was criticized because I always got what I wanted. Well, truth be told, sometimes what “I wanted” did not receive consensus support from the leadership, so what I wanted was tabled. This was precisely what happened in the case of the time change and the new piano. No consensus, no putting these to the congregation for a vote. I figured that if the church leadership was split on a decision, the congregation was bound to be divided also. But the congregation wasn’t always aware of the discussions in our meetings where some of my ideas never went far for lack of consensus.
At the end of the day, I tried to operate the church on what I would later understand as an elder model. If I were to take a church today, it would either be a church already committed to elders, or one that would be open to being taught on the importance of elder leadership—not elder rule, where the elders make the decisions and the congregation has little input but elder led, where a group or plurality of good and godly men lead the church in its service to Christ.
Next week, I want to offer some observations on elder leadership in Baptist churches. How many does a church need, how are they to function, who should be an elder? But for now, this will serve as an introduction to my journey to understand elder plurality. 2 Tim 2:2 “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
It’s been forty-three years since I graduated from Bible school, and forty years since I began my formal ministry. I was ordained in Madison, Indiana, in the fall of 1981, shortly before my wife and I moved to Manitoba to begin our first ministry. Forty years! It hardly seems possible. Forty years ago, I was sending out missionary correspondence on a manual typewriter, a modern invention in the 1870s. These were in use into the 1980s—I had one and used it to communicate with my supporting churches during our first term.
By our second term, electric typewriters with memory were in vogue. I bought a Sharp memory writer that would do mail merge and I was in hog heaven. No more laboring over the keyboard to “hunt and peck” out a letter to a supporter. I could preprogram the machine to type a letter, stop at a spot to insert person-specific information and finish the letter, without errors, assuming the master had been properly proofread. At the time, my wife suggested we buy a computer. My father-in-law had an IBM PC Jr. He loved it. He had been working for IBM, Honeywell and other places and was in the vanguard of those using the new technology. Why do we NEED a computer, I asked my wife? I won the day, and we bought the memory writer typewriter.
Boy was I wrong. Soon my father-in-law graduated to a better PC and donated the PC Jr. to me for my ministry. I was soon hooked, though all I had at the time was a thermal printer. My sermons notes were on that paper. Needless to say, I cannot read those outlines today, nor would I want to read my early sermons notes, weak as I am sure they were.
By the time I entered the doctoral program at Southern, I was using a laptop (why use anything else?) but the internet was young and inefficient with its dial-up modem. No Google Books, Archive.org or social media. How did we survive? As I began my teaching career in 2004, things were rapidly changing in the technological world. I had a flip phone, a PDA and a laptop on which I ran Logos! Wow! Now I could study the Word with resources at my fingertips! Today, I am using an Apple MacBook Pro with Logos’s latest version including a digital library of more than 7500 books, including most of the major conservative commentary series available! Plus, I have a digital PDF collection of about as many Baptist resources stored in the Cloud. Wow, who would of thought that I could study from anywhere and produce a decent, exegetical sermon (to the limits of my capabilities) without cracking the first printed book! Plus, I have an iPad Mini from which I preach completing my technologically proficient expertise. I have never used sermon prep helps that allow me to tap into another man’s outline or illustrations. I learned to prepare sermons the old-fashioned way (through study), so I just never felt the need to “borrow” someone else’s stuff. Once I started using the computer to produce sermons, my sermon preparation became 25-30% more efficient. I could do more in less time which meant that I had more time to put into sermon prep resulting in better sermons (which sometimes happened) or more time to do other things, often not as important (which also happened, all too often).
The first half of my ministry was in the world without the internet. How I managed, I’m not quite sure. But I did. Occasionally, my mother-in-law would send me sermons from a guy in Panorama City, CA by the name of MacArthur. The first series she sent was on the armor of the Christian. There were about a dozen tapes in the set which I listened to eagerly, multiple times. I didn’t know much about the preacher, only that he had a larger church and a radio ministry. But living in northern Canada, we couldn’t get his preaching on radio, so I only heard the occasional messages my mother-in-law forwarded.
However, students today have far more technological resources that are free and just a mouse clip away. A former student sent me a link to the Joshua Harris episode of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill which dropped recently. It was an interesting series—seven episodes about Mark Driscoll’s meteoric rise and stunning fall, followed by a one-hour discussion of Josh Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I had a bookstore ministry in Canada and sold more than a few of the million plus copies that were printed! As I reflected on the legacy of Driscoll/Harris today, I wonder if all the technological advance has helped or hindered the Church?
In my first paragraphs of this essay, I explain how my personal technological growth has contributed to my ministry. But with the advent of the internet, I am not sure that things improved on the whole. First there was the issue of pornography. As a pastor, I began to deal with men in the church who were having major problems with internet porn. I remember a man calling my home late one night stressed out. He thought he was going to have a heart attack. At the time, I hardly had email, much less the internet but I was aware of the growing problem. I knew that his son had been expelled from Bible college over porn on his computer and I knew that the man was in IT at a local college. I asked him if he was having problems on the internet. “Everyday, at lunch” was his reply. For the first time in my ministry, I became aware of the ravages of porn on the internet. I wish I could say that things have gotten better, but they have become profoundly worse since that early 1990s experience. I once went to use my PC at home after a visiting family had come for lunch only to discover that one of the teenagers who asked to use my computer for “homework,” had visited somewhere he should not and left an image on my machine! I’m not sure the church is better off in today’s world when it comes to sexual purity. Modern technology has made things drastically more difficult!
Second, the rise of the Christian celebrity is something for which we have modern technology to thank. If you’ve listened to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the excellent podcast series from Christianity Today, the Driscoll celebrity cult was only possible in recent years thanks in no small part to the internet, social media, etc. In fact, all the big celebrity guys from Driscoll to Piper to Macarthur wouldn’t be where they are today without the internet. I hate putting all three guys into the same category, but each man is a celebrity in his own way and thanks in no small part to the internet and social media. Many doubtless will argue that these men were well on their way to celebrity status before the internet, but who can doubt that effect that social media and the internet has had on their status? MacArthur, at least, objected to Driscoll, while Piper defended him and, to this day, apparently remains unrepentant. Is this too strong a comment? Perhaps if Piper, Danny Akin and others had shown greater discernment Mark might be in a better place today.
What is interesting to watch is that the same medium that catapulted them into such celebrities may be the very vehicle that reduces them to a footnote in Christian history. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a “celebrity” preacher in his day but on an entirely different level. I wonder if Spurgeon’s weaknesses, of which he surely had, were placed on display on the internet, if his ministry would have endured? I wonder how many mega-ministries will ultimately crash and burn because they are held together by the glue of a charismatic (non-Pentecostal sense) celebrity who is a one-off individual and simply cannot be replaced? Whatever else Jason Meyer was, he was no John Piper . . . not a criticism, just an observation. Who will fill the enormous shoes of MacArthur? He has to retire at some point. Who can fill his shoes? The internet has helped to produce these larger-than-life Christian celebrities. The internet may well be the medium that brings them crashing down, thanks to “discernment” or watchdog ministries that report on the happenings of these heroes in real time. Don’t like Julie et al? Don’t give her anything to write about. She might not get everything right. But there’s enough right to be troubling. She’s only as good as her sources. Somebody gave her the Bethlehem stuff. Likely multiple people.
Driscoll is gone and so is Mars Hill. But he is starting all over again in Scottsdale, apparently with the same issues. Piper is gone and Bethlehem is in crisis. Time would fail me to speak of Bill Hybels, James MacDonald, and a host of other prominent “Christian” leaders who have fallen victim to their own success. Sermongate? Again thanks to the internet, preaching another man’s sermon is just a click away. Jesus said that he would build his church and the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against it. Does this mean that when we see a church that has exploded or imploded that it wasn’t actually his church? What Jesus builds, Jesus maintains. Maybe we should concentrate more on seeking his approval than that of our constituents.
Has modern technology been our friend or our foe? I wonder if Jesus was training twelve today, would he use social media to make his point? Maybe this essay is an exercise in futility? WWJD? Maranatha! (Image borrowed)
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Has this ever been the cry of your heart? Can you relate to the grief of the Psalmist? There are four passages in the Scriptures that have this tone—How long, O Lord? It is a question cried out to God at a time of great anguish of soul. In this case, David in Psalm 13 calls out to God at a time of great personal offense. Many have experienced this kind of soul-jarring suffering and cried out to God for relief and justice. I have felt this agony numerous times in recent months as I watch things unfold in our world. But time and again, I come back to the sovereignty of God. God knows and he cares, even when, it seems, that others do not.
I have also asked that question “How long, O Lord?” as it comes to the evangelical world in which we live. The chaos, the shame, the conflict, the acrimony, the scandal! No wonder unbelievers turn away from our message of hope and redemption. Lawsuits charging malfeasance of the worst sort (12 women from Liberty are suing the school for failing to protect them from sexual predators). How long, O Lord?
The fallout from the Ravi Zacharias wickedness continues to claim victims. So many good people who sought to serve the Lord with RZIM either missed the warning signs, willfully ignored them, or had no idea what the higher ups were doing. Now there is a lawsuit pending claiming that RZIM defrauded its donors by covering up Ravi’s sin. The legacy of his wickedness will cascade through the Christian world for decades. How long, O Lord?
More sexual predators are getting exposed in the church practically on a daily basis. A recent conviction was of a pastor of a church with multiple staff . . . he was the pastor for preaching. He molested a young girl for years . . . sometimes multiple times per day. Then he stood in the pulpit to preach. What wickedness! What depravity! What evil! How long, O Lord? It’s good that he was been caught but it’s tragic that this evil infests the church so deeply. Sometimes these accusations involve a cover up. This one was brought to the authorities’ attention immediately. Some cover-ups of the most egregious forms of wickedness have occurred. These scandals reach to all aspects of Christendom—from Roman Catholicism to Southern Baptists. None of our churches are immune. How can the Church speak out in the world of Andrew Cuomo, when we are plagued with such evil ourselves? “How long, O Lord?”
Churches are being led by abusive leaders that leave in their wake broken lives of those abused. A man can be at the center of the evangelical world one day, yet despite his egregious actions and being judged by fellow elders as unfit for ministry, he simply moves to another location and starts the process all over again, leaving more chaos in his wake. Mark Driscoll went through a very public scandal at Mars Hill church in Seattle, eventually resigning from the church that soon disbanded. Without going through a restoration process, he moved a few years later to Scottsdale, AZ to begin a new church, one, apparently without internal or biblical structure or oversight and then appears to have repeated what happened previously. Christianity Today has a very inciteful series of podcasts, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill on the downfall of Driscoll and Mars Hill. There is another scandal unfolding at his current church accusing Driscoll of abusive behavior, separating his children’s in-laws from their children over accusations of disloyalty. These accusations have prompted more than three dozen former elders and leaders at Mars Hill to issue a public statement declaring Driscoll unfit for ministry and calling on him to step down and seek reconciliation. Yet Driscoll remains committed to his path, despite this call. “How long, O Lord?” Update: Here is an important timeline on the last days of Mars Hill.
Struggles are also surfacing at McLean Bible Church located outside our nation’s capital where former International Mission Board president David Platt is currently the pastor, and at Bethlehem Baptist Church here in Minneapolis, long-time church where John Piper was pastor. At issue in both cases is a charge of “wokeness” and a disputation of these charges. Churches will certainly have to grapple with race issues until Jesus comes and the resolution may ultimately take divine intervention. Unfortunately, in the case of both churches, there seems to be a failure of leadership and leadership structure, with evidence of not following clearly defined biblical polity. Questions over congregationalism have surfaced at McLean. Was the will of the congregation followed in the election of elders? The church has a web page devoted to the controversy. The dissenting group has a Facebook page to post their grievances. “How long, O Lord?”
Elders lead the church. If one elder is charged with misconduct by a fellow elder, the elders as a group, have a duty to hear the grievance and adjudicate the issue, taking both sides into consideration. In the case of Bethlehem, the elder was exonerated. So why did the elder who brought the charge in the first place put his letter before the public? This appears to be what has happened at Bethlehem. I come from a world that had few churches with elders. I was introduced to this idea of elders through Mark Dever’s booklet Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (originally a booklet, now a larger book) and later through Polity and have moved to an elder-preferred model in my thinking, instructing my students in the importance of elder led-churches, although the churches to which I have belonged have had no elders. But having observed elder churches near and far, I have come to one studied conclusion—elders only work when elders work. Having them isn’t as important as actually using them properly. To have elders and simply ignore the process (as what may have been done at Bethlehem) defies the very reason for elders in the first place. The few are to yield to the many, cheerfully and lovingly. If an elder really cannot support the decision of the many, then a quiet withdrawal is the only Christian thing to do. Of course, if the elder process has been corrupted by placing unqualified and ungodly men on the board, the few could be in the right, but they should have protested the elder process long before a crisis came. To support the elder structure until a crisis occurs, and then abandon the process at the eleventh hour, leaves the church to upheaval. How long, O Lord?
Some Christians argue for peace at any price. No matter what has been done or who did it, we have to protect the church or the organization. This sadly results in devastation when the light of truth finally reveals the ugly realities. Sin gets covered over, error gets tolerated and people’s lives are wrecked. I’ve always found it remarkable that in the case of David’s sin with Bathsheba, when Nathan the prophet confronts him (2 Sam 12), David is charged with giving the enemies of the Lord an occasion to blaspheme (KJV and NASB95) or David, by his actions, caused the Word of the Lord to be despised. By whom? Why did God reveal David’s sin to the prophet in the first place? It seems that God could have kept the matter concealed to protect his name. However, God is more concerned about truth than he is about his own “reputation.” When sin is covered, we are not protecting God or his reputation, we are protecting ourselves or our organization or its flawed leaders. We are not following God’s example. Sin should be challenged and exposed, no matter what is at stake. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Prov. 28:13).
Things in our evangelical world are ugly and getting uglier. How long, O Lord until you return, and we see truth and righteousness prevail? How long until your peace rules our earth and our experience? How long until we see a new heaven and a new earth? O Lord, how long? Maranatha!
Personal update: Readers of my blog may have noticed that I have been absent for several weeks. First, we went to a family reunion in Indianapolis, and I had a research trip scheduled for Nashville the following week. It is hard to blog and do research for other projects. Also, we are caregivers for our thirty-one-year-old son. For about four months, Rebecca and I have been his sole caregivers. This is due to a combination of COVID related issues and the government’s generosity in paying people not to work. While on our trip, we were exposed to COVID. No, we didn’t get it, likely because we were vaccinated several months ago, but my wife’s younger sister did get sick and she has been waging a battle with COVID pneumonia in a hospital in GA for two weeks, on a ventilator most of this time. My wife has been the point person in communicating between the hospital and the family. No one can visit in the hospital so talking to the doctors and nurses several times per day is the only way to keep abreast of things. She spends a lot of time updating the status and talking with various people about her sister. So, the short story is that we have been busy. Also, I recently completed a 2000-word follow-up essay for The Baptist Bulletin, which just published an article on the importance of teaching our congregations church history.
Finally, a brief comment on my research trip. I had the joy of spending time at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville. Taffey Hall and her staff made me feel welcome and were eager to help me locate material in their vast collection. I was working on two projects—Baptists and Slavery and Baptists and Freemasonry. The second topic will be a paper which I plan to read at ETS this fall.
As if this wasn’t enough, I have been dealing with some sort of infection this week and have had zero energy all week. But this is passing, so I can now finish what I started last week—this essay. Soli Deo Gloria!
It happened again to me last week. Just one day after I posted my essay on sermon plagiarism, I was sitting in my church, listening to my pastor deliver the Wednesday night message and something caught my ear. I had read the passage he was preaching from many times before and had passed over the obvious in the text . . . three times God spoke of Caleb as a man who wholly followed the Lord (Josh 14:8, 9, 14). What a commendation for any man of God . . . to wholly or completely, fully, with every ounce of one’s being, follow Yahweh—Jehovah, the “I AM.” Here was a description of a man devoted to God, used by our pastor as an example for us to consider and follow.
As I sat in the service that night, I divided my mind between hearing the Word and its thoughts about Caleb and thinking about what I had just written. As it turns out, I needed three messages for the coming Sunday, having been asked to fill the pulpit for a brother who was to be out of town during the week. Maybe I could use this great idea for one of those sermons. But would I be violating what I had just written? If I preached a message out of Joshua 14, would I be plagiarizing my pastor’s message?
Since this recent iteration of the discussion on using someone else’s sermons, there has been a fair bit of conversation on the internet about this topic, (e.g. here, here, here, and here) with people resurrecting essays from writers in the recent past who have weighed in. I asked the question last week, Can I preach another man’s sermon? Clearly some men think that the answer is an absolute yes! As I was looking at conversations on this topic past and present, I discovered an essay by a brother Baptist from Kentucky that argues that sermon plagiarism is nearly impossible. Looking at the sermons of others? Who doesn’t do it? All preachers should do it to become better preachers.
Wise pastors are doing just that. They’re viewing the best preachers in the world on a weekly basis. As they do, they become better preachers. They’re also finding great content that will bring transformation to the lives of the congregants God has placed under their teaching ministry.
He then offers six reasons why it is nearly impossible to plagiarize a sermon—no one’s thoughts are original, repeating what someone else has taught us is the preacher’s responsibility, preachers are called to be effective not original, preaching sermons is not the same as writing a book or an article, those who are being plagiarized aren’t considered to be plagiarizers, and there is no concrete definition of sermon plagiarism. Wow! I guess the adage, “if my bullets fit your gun, then fire them,” is ok after all. This is apparently what JD Greear told Ed Litton, the preacher at the center of the most recent plagiarism dust up.
But other Christian scholars are not so charitable. D. A. Carson suggests that sermon plagiarism is “wickedness” and one who is guilty should be terminated, immediately. “Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately.” Note the seriousness of this in Carson’s mind—“always and unequivocally wrong.” Not much room there for disagreement. To back up this statement, Carson lists three reasons why sermon plagiarism is “always and unequivocally wrong.” First, the preacher who plagiarizes is stealing; second, he is deceiving his audience; third, the plagiarizing preacher is not devoting himself to the Bible to allow it to transform him. Tom Rainer calls sermon plagiarism one of the four stupid things for which a pastor can be fired.
With such widely differing views, wherein does the truth lie? Is this just a matter of personal opinion—I think you are stealing, you think this is acceptable? Let’s go to my opening narrative of thinking about using the sermon of my pastor for a sermon I needed to preach in the near future. First, let’s consider how one might preach this section of Joshua in the first place. From a reading of the narrative, we see Caleb being marked out for his extra ordinary commitment to Yahweh at a time when such commitment was rare in Israel. Three times in the space of a few verses, the phrase “wholly followed the Lord my God” (יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽי) is found in the text. Anyone reading the Scripture carefully can see that there is a clear emphasis on this aspect of Caleb’s life. By my listening to the faithful exegesis of the passage by my pastor, I can draw inspiration for a sermon of my own from his good message. This isn’t plagiarism but it could be if I am not careful.
At what point would inspiration, which is acceptable, become plagiarism which is sinful for at least the reasons Carson mentions? This topic has been recently discussed by others but I offer my two cents also. I hate to admit this, but it would be nearly impossible for me to preach my pastor’s recent message to others, for several reasons. First, he passed out no notes and I took none. Plus, the message wasn’t recorded, so it would be really challenging for me to reproduce anything like what he said. Second, he used a rather extensive illustration of the Amazon river, the world’s largest river, describing it from its headwaters in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. He cited some amazing stats about the river, which I am sure he got somewhere. But frankly, I was listening to him and thinking about my future sermon needs, wondering how I could use Caleb in a sermon without merely plagiarizing the sermon, and thinking what a mighty river God had created. I couldn’t begin to reproduce his illustration as he uttered it and any attempt I might make to do so would fail miserably. It was uniquely his. Even as I write this essay, I cannot exactly tell you what the point of the illustration was (not his fault but mine as my own mind was a bit divided at that moment). If I were to preach a similar sermon, I would likely say that I heard my pastor preach a message on Caleb, but why would I need to do so? He was preaching the text and showing what the text meant. By my doing similarly, I would be merely being faithful to the Scripture. It would be easy to derive inspiration from his message without being guilty of plagiarism.
I have a sermon that I developed a few years ago, and which I preach on occasion, on the single word AMEN. What a great word, derived from the Greek word, derived from the Hebrew word, all pronounced similarly. In Romanian, the word is AMIN. Same word. It means “truly, certainly, so be it, verily.” I start my message with the statement “This morning, I will preach another man’s sermon.” That will wake up most sleepy-eyed saints! The sermon I allude to is one by Abraham Booth, pastor of Little Prescot Street Baptist Church of London, who with his fellow London ministers at the beginning of the 19th century were preaching a series of messages on the Lord’s Prayer. His assignment—the final word Amen. Just one word. When I preach my message on this word, I look at the idea in Hebrew and Greek, citing its usages in the Bible and then when it comes to application, I rehearse some of Booth’s implications that he drew out for those who use the word in their prayer. So, in doing this, while I may be using the content of another preacher, I give full credit in the application portion, unless I go beyond what Booth said with application of my own, but no one could accuse me of merely plagiarizing Abraham Booth. This does not constitute plagiarism because I give credit where credit is due. I have done my own study in the Scripture on the concept of Amen, so no one could suggest I am being lazy or not allowing the text to speak to me.
Someone has suggested that sermons cannot be plagiarized because there is no pecuniary gain by doing so. And we all plagiarize to some extent. But plagiarism amounts, at minimum, to the use of someone else’s intellectual property as one’s own. The advantage to the user may not be financial, it may be intangible. I am increasing my reputation through false pretense. As I said last week, preaching is not a performance art. The power of the sermon rests not in its structure, its content, its delivery, or even in its deliverer. The power of the sermon rests in its biblical fidelity and the breath of God which takes the preached Word of God and applies it into the soul of the hearer. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.”
Sermon plagiarism is a much talked about issue today. Here is a recent podcast by 9Marks and Mark Dever. It is something we may be tempted to do, even for good reasons. Why preach a weak message when I can preach a strong one? Well, if God has called us to serve Him and his people, and regular preaching is a part of that duty, should we not do our part to prepare his Word for the instruction of his people? If it’s a case of being too busy to have sufficient time to prepare, then are we doing the right things in the first place? I knew of one chap who was planting a church, working on an advanced degree, teaching in a Bible institute, working a full-time job AND had a wife and several children. When did he sleep? If anyone could justify “borrowing” someone else’s sermon, he seemed like a good candidate. But rather than doing that, he began to realize that he was over extended. He cut back from some of the good things he was doing to concentrate on the better things. Preaching is good, hard work. Preparing yourself as well as your message is an important part of the task. Do the hard work as a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. You may look back on your early sermons as works in progress. But in time, the joy of the pulpit will be yours as you amass a knowledge of the Word that makes sermon preparation later in life a rich joy.
I decided not to preach on Caleb after all. I prepared a new message on Daniel 1. Having spent nearly fifty years doing sermon work, I have a reservoir of knowledge to work with and was able to prepare what I hope was a suitable study for the Lord’s people. Daniel was also a man who wholly followed the Lord his God, even if the text doesn’t use those words.