by James M. Hamilton Jr.
The greatest danger facing the church is probably not what most of us expect. We expect some sort of direct challenge from without, but it probably comes from within. In our day, it may well come from well-meaning pastors.
How could well-meaning pastors pose the greatest threat to evangelical churches today? Do they deny the truth?
No, the pastors who pose the greatest threat to the church today will confess belief in the right things. They will confess the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, that Jesus saves, and that he is the only way of salvation.
So how can these guys who mean well and make the good confession pose such a threat to the church?
THE NATURE OF THE DANGER
They are a threat because, in spite of their confession, their words and actions treat Christianity as nothing more than the best form of therapy. They treat it as self-help. They treat it as the path to better marriages, better parent-child relationships, better attitudes and performance at work, and on and on.
Christianity is about success here and now. That, at least, is what you might conclude by listening to their sermons and observing how they do church. What "works best" guides their decision-making.
But Christianity is not primarily about any of that. Christianity is primarily about the gospel—about a holy God, rebels who deserve his wrath, a divine Son who takes the punishment rebels deserve, and the promise of forgiveness for all who repent and believe.
Christianity is about telling this true story in the words of the Bible so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, people come to see God, the world, and themselves correctly.
Christianity is about the triune God and the two natures of Christ.
Christianity is about the Holy Spirit supernaturally causing people to be born again so that they love this story and find in it their hope and joy.
Christianity is about trusting the word of God with all our hearts and not leaning on our own understanding—or on our own ideas about what works or what is relevant.
Christianity is about longing for the return of Christ, who, when he comes, will set up his kingdom, which means that this is not our home.
Pastors who present Christianity as therapy and self-help do not present Christianity. They are like the liberals that J. Gresham Machen denounced. Machen said that people who don’t believe the Bible should be honest and stop calling themselves Christians, because they have in fact created a new religion that is not to be identified with Christianity. Similarly, the promoters of the American religion of self-help and therapeutic pop-psychology ought to be honest: they don’t believe the Bible is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16).
If they believed that the Bible really does contain everything we need to be saved and to live lives that are pleasing to God, they would preach the Bible from their pulpits. Not only would they preach the Bible, trusting that God has revealed what he thinks his people need, trusting that God knows better than they do what is relevant, they would organize their churches according to the dictates of the Bible rather than the dictates of the market and the corporate world.
AVOIDING THE DANGER
So how do churches avoid winding up with a pastor who will harm them by turning Christianity into the American religion of self-help therapy?
1) Look at the biblical qualifications for men in the ministry (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9), and ask pastoral candidates direct questions about whether they meet these qualifications. Ask the man’s references whether he lives up to these statements. Do not assume that every candidate will meet these qualifications, and don’t assume that every candidate understands these qualifications. Ask him to explain the qualifications.
2) Since the feature that most distinguishes the qualifications for an elder (pastor) from the qualifications for a deacon is that the elder be "apt to teach" (1 Tim 3:2), pay close attention to his teaching. Seek to discern whether this man "holds firmly to the trustworthy word as taught," whether he knows enough theology "to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Tit 1:9, ESV).
3) Based on what you have heard of his preaching, ask yourself these questions:
a. Was the main point of the text he was preaching the main point of his sermon? (If he did not preach a text, remove his name from consideration.)
b. Does God rest heavily upon this man? Is it evident that he fears God? Can you tell that he knows that "teachers will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1)? Does he "tremble at the Word of God" (Isa 66:2)? Is the Word of God like a burning in his bones that he cannot hold in (Jer 20:9)?
c. Does he think that his main task is the explanation of the Bible, which is useful and relevant (2 Tim 3:16), or does he think that he needs to organize the Bible according to his wisdom in order for it to be useful and relevant?
d. Is the man going to help the church understand and live on the great truths of Christianity?
e. Is the man a theologian, or is he a just a gifted speaker with a good heart?
f. Do you trust this man’s ability to interpret the Bible and tell you what it means?
4) Consider also what you understand the calling of pastoral ministry to be:
a. Is pastoral ministry about "the ministry of the Word and prayer" (Acts 6:4), or is it about building a large corporation successful by worldly standards?
b. Is pastoral ministry about the power of the Spirit of God through the Word of God, or is it about "persuasive speech" and slick presentations? (cf. 1 Cor 2:1–5).
c. Is the great commission (Matt 28:18–20) about notching "decisions" on our belts or about making disciples who have been taught all that Jesus commanded?
d. Are Jesus’ instructions about church discipline (Matt 18:15–18) to be taken seriously or is he not going to practice church discipline since it might be bad for business?
e. Is church membership mainly about a big number for us to report, or should church members really take the "one another’s" in the New Testament seriously?
f. Are the main tasks of pastoral ministry prayer, teaching, and shepherding souls, or is pastoral ministry more about growing the business and managing a conglomerate of campuses?
g. What are his plans for doing evangelism?
h. What are his plans for doing discipleship?
i. What are his plans for praying for the members of the church?
Paul told the elders (or pastors) of the church in Ephesus that wolves would arise from within their ranks to destroy the flock (Acts 20:29–30). Likewise, Jesus said that the false prophets would be like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15). It might be hard to recognize these well-meaning pastors as wolves, but Jesus said we would know them by their fruits (Matt 7:16–20).
Let me add, not every pastor who doesn’t preach the Bible and who organizes the church according to a business model rather than a biblical model is intentionally trying to destroy the flock. Yes, some are evil. Some are in the ministry for their own advancement. But what do we say about well meaning pastors who propagate an un-Christian, un-biblical, worldly kind of Christianity? I think the words that Jesus spoke about those who corrupted the Old Covenant are fitting: "Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit" (Matt 15:14, ESV).
Let us therefore heed the words of Jesus about what a good shepherd does—"the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). Only Jesus can lay down his life for the sheep in the way he did at the cross. But his under-shepherds can lay down their lives for the sheep as they take up their crosses and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, loving, teaching, discipling, evangelizing, praying, and protecting the sheep from the wolves. No servant is greater than his master (John 15:20).
James M. Hamilton Jr. is the assistant professor of biblical studies, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Park Place Campus, and the preaching pastor at Baptist Church of the Redeemer in Sugar Land, TX. He is also the author of God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old & New Testaments (B&H, 2006). Visit his blog at www.jimhamilton.info.
James M. Hamilton