Ask Steve: Working with a Church


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Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Persecution, Abortion, Orphans, and Pornography

by David Platt

Category: Christian Living

2015, Tyndale



Question: Steve, in order to accept a pastoral position at a church, which theological differences between you and the church would be: (a) non-negotiable—i.e., you would not accept the position if there was disagreement between you and the church’s doctrinal statement; (b) tolerable, but you would reserve the right to teach otherwise patiently; (c) possible to co-exist indefinitely and peacefully?

Answer: Although it is ideal for a pastor/elder to be associated with a church that is in full doctrinal agreement with what the pastor believes about the Bible, there are many cases in which a pastor must decide whether he can shepherd a church in which he has some theological disagreements with, whether it is minor or major. This happens especially with denominational churches that have set practices and beliefs based on historic ecclesiastical tradition, some of which are not wrong, but are also not biblically supported.

What theological factors must a pastor consider when taking on a church? What are doctrines that are paramount? Which are tolerable? Which are non-issues? Must every pastor decide the same way?

First, the pastor must be committed to the non-negotiables of Christianity before choosing a church to candidate at. The non-negotiables are matters dealing with the nature of God, salvation and Christian living. The pastor must examine whether or not the church holds to a true understanding of God, in terms of His nature, character, and attributes. The church should understand God as the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, loving, just, righteous, and holy Being. The church must also believe that Jesus is fully God and fully Man, and that the Holy Spirit likewise holds to all the characteristics of God. Any church that severely distorts the character of God is practicing unrepentant idolatry (Ex 20:3; 1 Jn 4:3; 2 Jn 1:7). That means the church cannot believe that God knows partial information, is not entirely sovereign, that Jesus is partially man, or that God is only love and not just or holy. This is the first area of the non-negotiables.

Second, the church must also hold to a right view of the gospel, and not a perverted gospel such as the Prosperity, Social, Kingdom, or Dominion Gospel. Even if the church abides by an orthodox understanding of the gospel, there is a tendency in seeker-sensitive or contemporary churches to water down that gospel, in which they fail to really preach about God’s holiness, sin, judgment, hell, or repentance. So the first non-negotiable to look for is the church’s openness, and even passion, to uphold and teach the gospel in all its brutal honesty. Galatians 1:8 warns, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” Jude 3 also exhorts, “…I felt it necessary to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Pastors are not only to preach the gospel, but stand up for it, defend it, and not compromise it in all circumstances.

The third area that is non-negotiable is issues dealing with sanctification, Christian growth, and holy living. This means that the church should never compromise, justify, or approve of practices that the Bible deems as blatantly sinful. Many liberal and progressive churches in the mainline Protestant camp advocate practices like love and social justice, but also teach a dangerous form of “acceptance” and “tolerance” in which they openly support abortion, gay marriage, co-habitation, profanity, approval of other religions, and other unbiblical practices. Anytime a “church” justifies or labels anything sinful to be good, or at least morally acceptable, and anything righteous and holy to be evil, then it ceases to be a church in God’s eyes. A church should never in any ways hinder a Christian’s strive for holiness, if not cause them to stumble into a severe pattern or support of certain sins.

This is the point of the Apostle John’s discussion in the opening section of Revelation, in which certain churches are condemned for its acceptance of sinful practices, with no intention to repent. For example, John addresses the church in Thyatira and proclaims, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.” Christ cherishes the purity of her bride (the church), and anything that seeks to destroy that comes under God’s judgment (Mk 9:42). That is why the bride is called to be faithful to her groom (Jesus) (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:24). This is why pastors should never accept a position at a church if this area is in any ways compromised in a church.

Once the non-negotiables are considered, the pastor now must work out the tolerable issues (in which he might have opportunities to teach what the Bible says about those issues in due time). The tolerable issues are secondary matters of the Christian faith which do not prove a church or a Christian to be heretical or necessarily lacking saving faith. Yet these issues are significant enough that they can split churches or cause brethren to respectfully conduct Christian ministry separately. These tolerable issues include modes of baptism (full-immersion vs. sprinkling, paedobaptism (infant) vs. credobaptism (adult), eschatology (premillennialism vs. amillennialism, futurism vs. preterism), church government (plurality elder rule vs. Presbyterian rule), sign gifts (cessationism vs. continuationism), aetiology (theistic evolution vs. creationism), preaching (expository vs. topical), the Great Commission (evangelism and discipleship vs. gospel and social justice), and others issues. These differences in interpretation and practice do not mean that it is pointless or futile to discover and teach what the Bible says, only that it is not foundational enough to discredit a believer as to his identity as a Christian. There are true believers in many of these categories who indeed preach the true gospel and uphold a high standard of Christian living, but for the sake of the church’s unity and peace, they decide to do church separately.

This is also an issue that the pastor must consider according to his conscience, ministry goals, and ability to work with Christians of varying beliefs. Is the pastor content enough to focus on the major aspects of the gospel and Christian living in his preaching, teaching, and counseling? If the answer is yes, then the pastor can by all means pursue a church in which he disagrees on these tolerable doctrines, possibly praying that the Lord will open up opportunities for him to teach the true interpretation of these doctrines as time goes by? However, if the pastor is not comfortable with such churches (possibly because his ministry goal requires that he places a major emphasis on even many of the tolerable issues of the Christian faith, or that he has a low tolerance for disagreement with the elders and laity), then the pastor should candidate at a church in which he will be in agreement with both the non-negotiable and tolerable issues. I say this for the sake of his conscience, his compatibility with the church, and the effectiveness of his preaching through the entire Bible.

Finally, there are issues that are possible to exist peacefully. These are the very peripheral issues of the Christian faith. These are issues that are not on the level of the first two areas that I discussed, and are not important enough to split a church. This means that even if members of a church hold varying opinions of issues in this category, the church should still be united in peace, since it does not affect the practices of the ministry. These issues include mysterious or underdeveloped teachings in Scripture (ex. the designation of OT saints before Jesus’ first coming, the meaning of being “baptized for the dead” as discussed in 2 Corinthians, the interpretation of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6). These issues also include matters pertaining to Christian liberty: formal vs. informal dress for Sunday service, no alcohol consumption vs. some alcohol consumption, weekly communion vs. monthly communion, contemporary music vs. hymnal music, church building vs. school setting, work on Sunday vs. rest on Sunday, etc.

With that said, candidating at a church is a major process, and one that a pastor should not take lightly. A union between a pastor and a local church is similar to a union between a man and a woman in marriage. That is why it is important that the pastor understand the importance of not compromising on the non-negotiables, deciding whether he can handle a church with tolerable doctrines, and not being dogmatic on peripheral issues.