Nick, a member of Chesapeake Church, a Sovereign Grace church near Baltimore has made some very pointed comments regarding my “roadmap” post from about a month ago. He dearly loves the Sovereign Grace movement, particularly the King of Grace church in Methuen, which has received a lot of support from his home church. My post seems to have struck him as taking a lot for granted from an organization I barely even know, and so he suggests maybe I’m going about it the wrong way. The biggest concern is the impression that I’m looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as merely a means to an end. I felt his thoughts were significant enough for me to make a new post by way of reply.
Reading back through what I wrote, I can see how it might strike a passing visitor that I was being flippant, even arrogantly presumptive, especially from the perspective of a member of the community upon which I am declaring intentions to inflict myself. And to a certain extent I was being flippant, but my intent was for it to be self-directed. I am so very aware of how silly it is for a man to attempt to plan his way, especially in the area of ministry. “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
Nevertheless, the call of God, particularly for me to go to seminary, has been undeniable. My wife and my family will tell you, if it could have been avoided, I would not be here. Therefore, having been sent by God very far from home to acquire an education whose only discernable purpose is to prepare for pastoral ministry, it behooves me to do whatever is in my power to follow this leading to the furthest extent of my ability. The goal is not to presume upon God, but to avoid presumption – “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It would be presumptuous for me to sit and wait without first exerting some real effort in the direction he has already established.
Of course, that doesn’t remove the fact that it would still be presumptuous for me to expect that a denomination or community of churches would be willing to derail a carefully designed process, which protects its members from poor leadership, in order to streamline things for me, a stranger, sight unseen. No! Of course not! “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” I would never want to presume – Nevertheless, it’s my commitment to church structures that are larger than individual congregations which forces me to look in their direction. Sometime I’m going to have to explain my reasoning for being pro-denominational, but for the moment, let me give the example of my own church, which is currently in the process of searching for a new pastor:
Each time they do this, as they have for over 100 years, they have to take a complete stranger and place him in authority over them, without even the advantage of having known him for a year and sending him for 9 months to a “pastor’s college.” They have been remarkably blessed – their last pastor was with them for 27 years. Other independent churches I’ve been in have opted to only raise up members from within their own congregation, which was met by some churches with more success than others. Another church I was a part of has simply refrained from appointing a single man as “pastor.” They have, by God’s grace, been blessed with more than the normal share of lay elders who are “inclined to teach,” and who share the leadership among themselves.
From my perspective, with the understanding that God intends me to follow the normal course of things, it seems that I have three options: First, I could stay at my present church, with the expectation of one day being made pastor. Secondly, I could work toward becoming a pastor at another independent church, where they would put me in authority over them with little warning. Third, I could seek to join a denomination or association of churches, submitting myself to the authority of their elders, with the understanding that I have been led to train as a pastor and a teacher, and that this has been confirmed by many others from whom I have sought guidance.
The first option is out of the question. They are looking for a pastor *now* and by their standards, the person they are looking for must have completed a seminary degree. I don’t yet qualify. To hope they’ll need me once I do qualify is to wish them a very long and troubled interim. The second option is perpetually open – there are independent churches which would accept me as pastor even now – but since God called me first to seminary and to pastoral ministry seemingly only by extension, it would seem foolhardy to go careening off toward the second part before completing the first. The third option is fraught with obstacles, but they are just the sort of obstacles I approve of. If they were not there, and it were in my power, I would set them up.
Nick is worried that I am seeing the Sovereign Grace movement as a means to an end. And I am. I am a member of the church universal by God’s grace and for the glory of his Son, but for me to enter in to a relationship with any particular institution of his church requires a reason. However, my hope is that the way in which I am hoping to “use” them is the very purpose that God intended for them: that is, to provide guidance and structure to its members. The great fear is that, having joined them, and having *called* myself submitted to their authority, my request for “promotion” would be rejected. Even a year is a very short time to a people who take seriously the command to “know those who labor among you,” and there are different scriptural requirements than seminary for one who would wish to take on a position of authority. And then what do they have on their hands? A resentful, rebellious would-have-been, perhaps not so submitted as he had claimed.
But what are my options? My goal is to do these things with the least amount of politicking and the greatest submission possible. The path of *least* resistance remains forever open: put out resumes… or even *start* a church. But the greatest possible submission requires being a part of some supra-church organization. A denomination; a movement; a something. Any such organization with any sense has systems set up that keep outsiders from suddenly moving to positions of authority within them. All of those systems begin the same: join one of our churches. So there I am: if I am going to be a part, I must join. Everything after that is completely hypothetical, and I know it.
I have no intention of becoming a resentful, rebellious would-have-been. I have every intention of submitting to all authority, every intention of maintaining long-term committed relationships. The worst thing for any part of Christ’s church is discontinuity. With each major transition, some small measure of trust is broken. I know that. I’ve seen it.
So why not take that extra step? Why not join now? For the same reason I want to join at all: commitment. I’m already in a church. I practically just joined. Even as a lay Christian, I have a responsibility to see to the continuity of the church that I am in, to ensure that its leadership is solid and supported and to ensure the existence of the next generation. That is to say: Don’t abandon the church when it needs you. Currently at my church, I am the youth leader and an assistant Sunday School teacher. My wife and I are 2/3 of the music department. We don’t have a pastor, and this summer I’ve been asked to preach. In short, I’m not going anywhere soon. And before I do, I hope to see a new pastor established, a new youth leader equipped and in place, and a thriving worship team. I honestly believe this can be accomplished in the next three years.
In terms of my plans for Sovereign Grace, what I have before me is a series of hypothetical steps. If steps are to be taken, these are what that they must be. Obviously, at any point they may be seriously derailed. Everything I know of Sovereign Grace ministries speaks of great promise and a good fit. But this may not be the path that God has set out for me. I have received no clear word on the matter. At any point, I may learn that God has other plans. It may even be, as Nick has suggested that the Lord doesn’t intend for me to move directly into pastoral ministry at all. I wouldn’t put it past Him. It may be that I should even think about moving directly from Gordon Conwell to some other seminary where I could complete work on a PhD. Stranger things have happened.
Nevertheless, if I am ever to be a part of a larger community of churches, the first thing I must do is *join*.
So how about it? My impression is that most people join a denomination simply by “falling in.” That is, the church they join just happens to be a part of a particular collection of churches. Or, even more happily, they are born to church members. It’s only through acculturation that they come to see their particular group as the haven that it is. But it hasn’t worked that way for me. If I’m going to join a denomination, I have to do it on purpose.
So is there a better way to go about these things? Nick pointed out in his comment that extensive formal theological education isn’t a requirement for Sovereign Grace Pastors, but then should Sovereign Grace have no theologians? Does my desire to become a theologian commit me to being a perpetual floater? Is there a way to join a denomination on purpose without making them a “means to an end”? Should I even consider joining Sovereign Grace Ministries?
Brothers (and sisters), what should I do?