As this blog begins to grow a few gray hairs I have tried to guide the ship away from internet icebergs. When it comes to church controversies being played out on the internet, I believe the majority of the issues come down to matters of the local church. The best advice I can give a younger pastor is to stay away from controversies that are not impacting your particular church. Keep your head down, preach the Word, love the people, stay out of politics. Generally speaking, this should serve you well.The opposite of this is currently being played out on the internet and in the circles of the restless-reformed crowd. Here are a few questions that come to mind:
Where are the Elders?
When the news first broke that C. J. Mahaney was taking a leave of absence, one of my church members read his letter and asked me, “where are his church’s elders in all of this?” I read the letter too and noticed that Mahaney made numerous references to ministry boards (Sovereign Grace), outside counselors (Sande, Powlison), and pastors of other churches (Dever) but not a single word about his church membership and requisite accountability to his local church’s leadership. The biblical model for church governance is local church elders. Not a CEO, not a board of trustees, not a hierarchical system, not a senior pastor and his staff, not a Seminary president, and certainly not a deacon-run church. There are two offices and they are elders and deacons. All elders are to be spiritually qualified (1 Tim 3; Titus 1) and the main focus of their ministry is the Word and shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5). Their authority is limited to their own congregations, which is to act as the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). My understanding is that no one gets an exemption from the biblical model (Heb 13:17).
Why is it public?
I believe the public way both the accusers and the accused are handling this is unbiblical. It is a sad tale that even the unbelieving world has picked-up on and are now finding yet another reason to mock the foolishness of Christians. This situation is not wholly unlike the issue of lawsuits in 1 Corinthians 6. “Is there not one wise man among you who can decide between his brothers, but brother goes against brother, and that before unbelievers?” Any pimple-faced kid with a keyboard can launch an assault from his parent’s basement but this doesn’t mean that every accusation must be answered in kind. Even when the accuser is a former pastor who should know better, it is not necessary to take a response public. This is almost never helpful and I’m trying to think of a single example where this has worked out well for anyone.
How is their theology serving them?
All this brings me to a key conclusion about this ordeal. The issue is not one of methodology but theology. It is always theology that informs methodology, whether good or bad. This situation reveals a subjective theology built on feelings, impressions, and some sort of weird contortion of the apostolic office. Jesse Johnson has written an insightful essay on these issues (see here). The letters and their responses reveal a paltry understanding of the doctrine of the Church, Spiritual Gifts, Sanctification, Forgiveness, and the basics of letter writing (that last one is a preference).
Some of the documents that have been “leaked” to the internet make Julian Assange look like a novice. The details are carefully dated and footnoted as if to say, “See we have footnotes, this makes it official!” I keep waiting any day now for an internet bombshell to detail the results of Mahaney’s latest physical exam. I guess we’ll have to wait for that one. However, what I have read has left me asking, “Really, is this it?” Is this worthy of the name of Christ? Is this what being “coalitioned” and “together” for the Gospel looks like? After decades of ministry, is this finishing well? I believe this can be turned around but it would take a reformation of ministry, theology, and practice of monumental proportions. One hopes that cooler and more biblicaly minded heads will prevail but as for now, it’s difficult to see if that will happen.
As a pastor this highlights for me, in a real way, the importance of training effective leaders, teaching biblical theology, and putting it all to practice amidst the flock. There is no need for me or anyone to aim more arrows at the situation, it’s already a mess without more sinners getting in the way. What we can do is pray, learn, and redouble our efforts in the places where the Lord of the Church has allotted us ministry.