Monday, October 26, 2009

How to Find a Trustworthy Pastor (and Church)

Finding a church is hard. Finding a reliable teacher of God's Word is vital!

I meet a lot of people who say they are looking for the right church. (And no, I don't try to persuade every one of them to join Crosspoint.) Finding a faithful preacher of God's Word is the key to finding a good church. Brilliant music, krankin' kid's programs and a great facility won't cut it if your heart isn't fed God's Word.

This strikes home often as I read one of my favorite blogs - I'm Speaking Truth- written and moderated by my good friend (who must blog anonymously so as not to suffer threats to his life and family). He exposes false teachers. He tries to get people to leave what he calls "pulpit pimps" and the "clubs" for the sake of saving their souls. He takes on the false prophets. He names names and says things only a man who was 'come off the plantation' could say. He's one of my heroes.

Highly recommended reading, especially for my evangelical Anglo brothers and sisters who don't get out of their theological circles much.

Two Resources for Finding a (True) Church and a (Reliable) Pastor

The topic of finding a church comes up frequently on IST. Chances are slim in our transient modern era that an adult Christian will never have to search for a church. So how should one go about finding a true church and a faithful pastor? You shouldn't just follow the crowd or take your friend's advice. Listen discerningly to sermons and examine church government (and accountability).

One resource for what to listen for is here in this article by a classmate of mine from grad school. It's a list of qualifying questions and description of what to look for in a biblical preacher or teacher. Solid stuff about sermon content and personal character.
"The Bible makes it clear that there are many unreliable carriers of so-called truth. Satan masquerades as an angel of light seeking to deceive. So we need a lot of biblical discernment here. Just because a teacher or preacher comes in Jesus’ name with a Bible under his arm doesn’t automatically mean he is reliable.

"Thankfully both the Bible and church history give us some direction here. So I want to provide you with a brief list of five questions (based on the five sola’s of the Reformation) that can help you discern the reliability of a particular teacher or preacher."
The second resource is part of a reply I made to a recent post on IST. It has to do with the importance of church government and pastoral accountability in finding a pastor. Here is an edited version:
Many of the concerns you all bring up about specific pastors can be addressed and answered by good pastoral peer-level accountability.

1.God ordains church authority (all authority in fact - see Romans 13:1).

Church government is like the engine and transmission that runs a church. You don't see how the power train works, but it's there. You had better check under the hood before you invest!

Many of the posts and comments on this blog (I'm Speaking Truth) have been leveled at so-called pastors who have NO peer-level accountability. They are the sole authority in their church. In some cases they personally OWN the church property purchased with offerings! They are self-authorized. They have usurped church ‘authority’ by only being authorized by another false teacher. That engine is bound to be a lemon.

Biblical church government is important.

What is Church Government?
Church government refers to a)how authority is applied b) how decisions are made and c)how discipline is carried out.

How Authority is Applied

In reference to finding a pastor, ask, "Is he under the authority and accountability of a biblically sound authorizing group?"

Some authorizing bodies are a sham. Some people get their pastoral credentials over the internet in 10 minutes, some from institutions of suspect quality. And yet other authorizing bodies require a pastor to be a trained professional with preference to graduates from accredited theological institutions. In my denomination, a pastor is required to pass rigorous exams similar to what a lawyer or accountant must pass in order to practice.

How Decisions are Made

A personal illustration. I wanted to plant a church after going to seminary. I had been ordained and served on staff at a biblically sound but independent church (yes there are a some, but they are rare). If I planted a church associated with this independent church, I would be independent in all decisions and only accountable to the level that I desired to be accountable.

I didn’t trust my sin-sick heart to lead an independent church.

I don't trust myself to make wise, biblically sound decisions all the time - all by myself. I don't think anyone should be put in that position of power and authority. Even if you can go faster with a church leadership structure like that, you are just asking for transmission failure while you're going 70mph!
So I sought and found a denomination that has not only high training standards but also high accountability for pastors and requires shared decision-making. I am not the ONLY person with a vote - and that is a good thing for me and for the people of our church!

How Discipline is Carried Out
What happens when someone sins so significantly that they should no longer lead a church? Does anything happen?

Actual, functional grace-driven church discipline must remove people from office, lead them to repentance, seek to reconcile them and restore them. If it is to be biblical.

Another personal observation.
Prior to joining this church association, I heard stories and later met people who have been disciplined. And they were grateful, humble after being led through the process of church discipline. I am impressed. Matthew 18 can be done. Pastors can be protected, shepherded and disciplined if needed. Wow. I wish I could say more. But I can't because we don't gossip about discipline situations.

All that to say, you should look at each pastor's accountability (not just the names of their schools and associations on a website) and church government. Ask the following:
- Where did he get his or her credentials?
- To whom is he accountable in the church and above the church?
- Who gets a real vote on church decisions?
- Are godly people supervising the pastors? Do they have actual, hands-on biblical authority to address the problems you may see and comment on in a blog?

Here is a hard fact.
No one who looks on from a distance or sits in the pews of a church can (or should) exercise direct authority over any pastor. Properly done, biblical authority comes from God, to a governing/authorizing ecclesiastical body, to a pastor for a local church. This is God's design to promote His glory and lead His people.

Church folk are called by God to submit to authority (Romans 13:1) even if authority is a Roman emperor or a pastor you don’t particularly care for after you get to know him.

Some church members have the privilege of voting on some church decisions. If you just attend, all you can do is pray and comment appropriately (There is a difference between confronting sin and gossiping. 2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

YOU are responsible to God and your family for the one under whom you place yourself. Actual church authorities have to enforce accountability.

My reaction to one sermon can't be the end of my homework.
Part of searching for a good, solid church is to check out whether the church government above the church is trustworthy too. Look under the hood before you enter into a covenant relationship with a church and its pastor.

I'm working and praying for the day when biblically-oriented folk join in with churches that have biblical authority and biblical discipline in addition to biblical doctrine in the pastors' sermons. Then the wolves in sheep's clothing will have much fewer sheep to deceive!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the shoutout, PJ. It's interesting to note that a blogger has to blog anonymously because of the strong influence of negative and false churches to begin with. That said, I appreciate you expounding on your comments from my recent article in this forum - particularly because you hit the nail on the head regarding accountability and church governance.

The reason that so many "plantations" flourish is the lack of accountability - and when people flee they are completely taken aback in looking for an assembly that preaches sound doctrine. As you recall, it took me awhile to trust you in our off-line interactions before we met face-to-face.

Your article underscores the importance of providing resources for those who do escape - think of it as a re-entry program for paroled convicts. We can rail about false teachers and questionalbe doctrine until we're blue in the face, but eventually we've got to point followers to those who are chasing after God.

Good stuff...

Anonymous said...

If you cannot trust a pastor on temporal matters you cannot trust him on eternal matters. The truth about 9-11-2001 for example.