THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING WATCH
Next week I am commencing a series entitled, “Pop Goes The Gospel”, which deals with the post-modern repackaging of the gospel and its pervasive influence within Christianity. I am conscious, however, that pointing out error and challenging the status quo is not viewed very positively within the modern church. We live in an era of tolerance where, even in the church, peace and harmony are valued more highly than sound doctrine. Church members who dare to speak up and question the teaching of their church or pastor are thought to have a critical spirit and are often labelled as trouble-makers.
A dear friend of mine is a mature Christian with an excellent knowledge of the Bible (he was an elder in a church I pastored many years ago). He recently became very concerned about a theme of teaching and a particular ecclesiological philosophy within his current church, which he believed were contradictory to the New Testament. He prepared a paper outlining how this teaching and practice contradicted the New Testament, and he met with the pastor and one of the elders to share his concerns. Not only were his concerns not listened to, and his paper largely unread, but he has now been labelled as a trouble maker. He was accused of not supporting the minister as God’s appointed leader. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. I heard of a similar encounter recently, where the questioner was bludgeoned into silence (if not submission) with Psalm 105:15, “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed” – a verse which has nothing to do with holding pastors to account for the doctrine that they preach!
This kind of elitist elevation of the pastor beyond the reach of congregational accountability used to be a disease limited to Pentecostalism, but has now inveigled itself within Evangelicalism. The Bible condemns this kind of ivory tower elitism, and, instead, exhorts God’s people to hold their teachers to account by carefully scrutinising and evaluating what is taught in our churches.
I am aware that many Christians run from conflict and will do anything to keep the peace. They are extremely reluctant to voice concerns about matters of doctrine or practice. They value harmony and peace in the church above all else. But the Bible does not teach “peace at all costs”. Truth matters. And the mature Christian is, at times, called upon to speak up against misleading teaching and defend the truth. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, theologian and philosopher, once wrote, “It is as much a crime to disturb the peace when truth prevails as it is to keep the peace when truth is violated.”
ELDERS ARE TO KEEP WATCH
According to the New Testament, the primary function of the shepherd (elder) is not to cuddle the sheep, but to keep them safe. The elder is to ensure that the flock are not led astray by false teaching:
“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30)
When outlining the essential characteristics of a potential elder, Paul writes that “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Similarly, Paul instructs Timothy, the preaching elder at Ephesus, to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1Timothy 1:3).
Inherent in these and other verses is the necessity for elders to constantly scrutinise the preaching in their church and be prepared to correct, and even rebuke, false or misleading teaching when it occurs – even if that preaching comes from their pastor. This is the biblical mandate for eldership! Any elder who does not have the biblical knowledge to discern truth from error (1Timothy 3:2; 2Timothy 2:24), and the strength of character to defend the truth when necessary, should not be on eldership. The pastor should be regarded as a preaching elder, a member of a team, to which he is accountable. The Apostle Paul demonstrated his willingness to correct the teaching of a fellow elder when he confronted the Apostle Peter about his wrong teaching: “But when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was in error” (Galatians 2:11).
Guarding the flock from false doctrine is the elder’s primary calling. In fact, it is the role to which God will hold each elder ultimately accountable. This is evident in Paul’s charge to Timothy, the preaching pastor/elder at Ephesus:
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2Timothy 3:16 – 4:3)
Sadly, we do not see this kind of doctrinal alertness and strength of character in many elderships today. Many elders are not even aware that this is their primary responsibility. They are often elected because of their caring hearts and their loyalty to the pastor. Pastors tend to nominate elders who are already “on their side” and who will support them unquestioningly. Consequently, many elderships see their primary role as supporting and protecting the pastor, rather than as guarding God’s flock.
WE MUST ALL KEEP WATCH
The Bible is also very clear that every Christian has a responsibility to stand up for the truth and speak out against error – not just elders. Jesus said, “Watch out that no one deceives you” (Matthew 24:4). Similarly, John writes to ordinary Christians, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world … watch out … If anyone comes to you and teaches false doctrine do not welcome them into your home” (2 John 7-10).
John further explains that we are to actively “test” the teachings that are presented to us, rather than passively and unquestioningly receiving them: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1)
Luke records that when the Apostle Paul preached in Berea, the believers did not accept his teaching unthinkingly, but continually evaluated it against the scriptures to ensure that he was speaking the truth: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11)
The Bible calls us all to emulate the Bereans. We are not meant to passively and unthinkingly accept everything that is preached in our church. Preachers are not infallible; they may sometimes err. The mature Christian is one who listens with an open Bible and a discerning mind. We are called to test everything against God’s Word, not in order to catch our pastor out, but to protect ourselves and our church from drifting into error.
Part of our responsibility to protect ourselves and our churches involves a willingness to speak out when something is taught that is contrary to, or out of balance with, the emphasis of the scriptures. This should not be regarded as a negative activity. Rather, it is an act of love. Bible commentator, Charles Simeon, comments, “To warn people of their error is the kindest office of love”.
Obviously, to question the teaching of a preacher can seem a daunting and intimidating task. For the preacher, too, it can be a challenging encounter. But if a preacher is a humble man (or woman) of God, and his heart’s desire is to faithfully proclaim God’s Word, he should be willing to listen to, and consider, any critique from his brothers and sisters in the Lord. In fact, a preacher’s true godliness (or lack thereof) will be evident by their response to this kind of critique. A preacher who refuses to seriously consider biblically-based concerns, who acts defensively, who impugns the character of the questioner and who insists on unthinking allegiance to himself as God’s anointed, should cause serious questions to be raised about his integrity and his true motivations.
“POP GOES THE GOSPEL”
As I stated at the beginning, I am about to publish a series entitled, “Pop Goes The Gospel”, in which I hope to highlight a subtle, yet dangerous, new spin on the gospel message that has become increasingly prevalent and influential within Christianity in recent years. I do so out of love for God’s people and a deep concern for the integrity of the biblical gospel. As you read each episode, it is my prayer that you will seriously consider the issues raised and begin to critically evaluate the proclamation of God’s Word in your own church, with a spirit of love and discernment.
 An excellent article on this topic at preservedwords.com/touchnot.htm
 Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 14:520
So true Kevin. Look forward to the read. I guess when some pastors stop using the pulpit to manipulate the congregation into submission no matter how subtle they may go about it, then the congregation may feel empowered to speak up. Furthermore when a church does not take discipleship seriously then it just breeds immature christians who can be easily manipulated.
Thanks Elen. As a former pastor myself, I valued those mature members of the congregation who checked everything against the scriptures and weren’t afraid to question me. Their vigilance motivated me to be careful in my preparation of sermons. There were a couple of occasions over the years when congregational feedback helped me to see that I had slightly missed the mark theologically. The pastor should never see himself as being beyond accountability or above correction.