29 March 2012

"After all, Pastor, it's your church"

by Dan Phillips

I would imagine every Christian pastor has had the experience I did last week, and I would imagine that they all have winced, too.

After the funeral, I was approached by a textbook Texan I hadn't met before, not an attender. He seemed like a good guy, and I liked him instantly. He stood maybe 6'4" or 6'5" (well above my 6'), and yes he actually was wearing a cowboy hat and, I believe, boots. His voice was rich and resonant, like well-oiled leather. He had a question:

"Where can I go to smoke?"

By the way, we're not at the cringe-part.

For the ___th time since I'd begun here a week and a half previously, I was being asked a question to which I had no real answer. I chuckled and said I didn't know, anywhere not inside a building should be fine, it didn't really matter to me.

"Well, it's your church," he said. Then I winced.

"Actually, it's God's church," I smiled in response. It felt kind of cliched to say, because I knew what he meant. And yet if I hadn't said it, I would have felt bad all day; and since I don't really like feeling bad all day, I made the point that perhaps didn't need to be made just in case it did need to be made: it isn't my church, it's God's church.

That keeps coming back to me in odd moments. As I've thought of it, I think there are a few things worth saying. Of course, you'll be the judge of that. But it occurs to me that there are some ways in which thinking of Copperfield Bible Church as my church would always be wrong and always be harmful, but also there are some ways in which thinking of CBC as my church are both true and helpful.

Let me 'splain.

First: "My church"? Absolutely not! Never!

It's Christ's church. Frankly, this point is so massive and important that it virtually renders the phrase unusable (Matt. 16:18, etc.). The church is not my church, the elders' church, a denomination's church, the majority's church. It's Christ's church. It was His idea. He created it. He's building it. It is truly and really all about Him (Eph. 4:15). Any mortal who loses sight of that is pretty much lost, period.

The church is constituted by the Holy Spirit. It may and probably should have a Constitution, but the Constituter is the Spirit, by that waterless baptism which both created the church and enrolls members (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 12:13). No mortal does any of that, either.

The church is made up of saints whom I am to serve, and with whom I work for their joy and edification (Rom. 12:4-5; 2 Cor. 1:24). What any leader does must have Christ first in view as He exercises Lordship by His Spirit-breathed inscripturated Word. At the same time, it must have Christ's people in view, and their edification (1 Cor. 14:26b; Eph. 4:11-13). There's no shelter here for a kind of Christ-centeredness that makes no effort actually to pastor the actual people in the actual assembly one serves.

Those are important points. One should never, ever think of a local assembly as "my church," if each of those considerations isn't firmly in place.

But if they are? Is there a useful, even an important and necessary use of the words? I think so:

Second: "My church"? Good point, in that...

Christ has entrusted it to me for protection, and I must own that. I am charged with guarding against grievous wolves (Acts 20:28-31). I am charged with preaching healthy doctrine, and decisively refuting and shutting down those who are advocating otherwise (1 Tim. 4:6; Titus 1:9-13; 3:10-11). That's my job. I can't shrug it off by hoping that they buy some professional apologist's materials, listen to the right podcasts, read the right books. They are my charge for my protection.

Christ has entrusted it to me for edification, and I must own that. I am to preach the Word to them no matter what (2 Tim. 4:1-5). I am to work with them for their joy (2 Cor. 1:24). The Word that builds them up is the Word that I am to preach emphatically and wholly (Acts 20:27-28, 32). My ministry should personally encompass every person entrusted to my care, and that's hard work (Col. 1:27-28). I can't hope they read Piper or Spurgeon for their edification. That's my job under God.

Christ will call me to account for how I care for this body of believers, and I must own that. This can be grievous or it can be joyous (and right now, I can't ever remember being happier in what I am doing), but either way, it's down to me under God (Heb. 13:7, 17). They're mine to care for and watch out for, and it's me God is going to take to task for how I do that — not MacArthur, not Sproul, not DeYoung, but me.

I've preached this message along those lines here and at my blog for many years. Now it's me in that office, and everything I said that was true is still true. In other words, all those grand theories and ideas I've had and blogged about? Now's the time, and this is the place, and I am that guy.

So is this church "my church"? In the most important sense — in the sense of who owns it and defines it and possesses it — absolutely and most emphatically NO.

But is it "my church"? In the sense that it is mine to serve, mine to love, mine to care for, mine to protect, mine to nourish and feed and lead, and mine to answer for before God in the Last Day? My responsibility, under God? My charge?


It's hard even to write the words, candidly. But Scripture forces the conclusion.

In that sense, yes.

(Thank God I share the task with good, godly fellow elders!)

Dan Phillips's signature


Nauvoo Pastor said...

I have had the same problem and came to the same conclusions that you have. You have stated them exceptionally well. We continue praying for you as you lead. Blessings! Bro. Martin

CCinTn said...

Excellent words Dan! I also like where Paul says in 2 Cor 1:21 “And it is God who establishes us WITH you in Christ and has anointed us,”
The “Us” (pastors/elders) are established by God with the “You”s (the flock) not just “for” them.

Your post is a great reminder that we must recognize that it is Christ’s church. He is the head. Also a great reminder that you, as an under-shepherd have great responsibility for your care of His sheep. In that sense it is your church in that God has made you a steward over His blood-bought loved ones. Your words rightly covey how you tremble (in your new cowboy boots?) at that responsibility.

One thing I did want to weigh in with is that the “you”s need to understand that it is their church as well, understanding that being a member of the Universal Church and the local body has responsibilities and requirements as well. In this consumer driven age we live in, churches are riddled with folks who punch the time clock each Sunday and go their way after ‘getting’ out of the church what they want. They fail to see how they are called to edify, encourage and build up other members, to participate as willing and eager worshippers, to hold others accountable to the teachings of scripture and to offer themselves to be held accountable as well. And of course there is the mission of the church in which they have a responsibility to work side-by-side with the other members of the Body in proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples (your post from Tuesday)

To whom much is given, much is required and pastors/elders will held accountable for how they tended the sheep but the sheep need to also understand that they too will judged for the kind of sheep they were. That should cause a lot of gulping in the pews this Sunday!

Blessings on you as you pastor those in your charge

Bike Bubba said...

OK, now the big question; how did our large brother (?) respond?

~Mark said...

Good post! I wrestled with finding the middle ground with this issue until I was able to wrangle it down (h/t to the cowboy) into a sentence:

It's God's Church and I'm junior management.


Ted Bigelow said...

All I wanted was to light up and what happens? I gets a sermon.

canewbie said...

Excellent response!
May the Lord grant you the continuing grace to put it into practice.

(The guy was probably just referring to the building.)

Lynn Arthur

canewbie said...

Excellent response!
May the Lord grant you the continuing grace to put it into practice.

(The guy was probably just referring to the building.)

Lynn Arthur

DJP said...

I didn't bust his chops. We had a nice chat.

Morris Brooks said...

Reading your post, I couldn't help but think of John 10 & 21. Christ as the Good Shepherd of His flock, and His command to Peter to lead and feed His flock. As Paul says, in I Corinthians 4..."it is required of a steward that they be found trustworthy."

As undershepherds we have been given the responsibility for the well being of His flock. It is our ownership of that stewardship keeps us rightly balanced.

DJP said...

Very good point, Morris. They're "My sheep" and "My lambs," yet He says "You tend them, you shepherd them, you feed them."

Rachael Starke said...

Love it. Sort of a case of "be careful what you pray for", in all the best ways.

Frank Turk said...

Well, it's not yours until you finish paying the mortgage.

Solameanie said...

Smoking always used to be a hot topic in the church of Christ when I was a kid, usually out on the front porch after service where the smoking would be taking place.

Before I pass from this life—purely for experimental purposes—I would like to preach a sermon against the Masonic Lodge at an SBC church in the South. Then I would time how quickly I could make tracks down the aisle of the sanctuary before getting tackled. Don't quite know why that popped into my head, but I remember when doing radio and when my radio program still took listener calls, the most on-fire the phone lines ever got was the day we did an anti-Masonry program. I have never heard people so irate.

Hope that subject doesn't come up for you, Dan, at least not for a while. ;)

Larry Geiger said...

We use the same grammar to describe something that we own, "It's mine..." and something that we are associated with "My street is coming up, turn there...". It has always seemed to me that we need some English way of describing the difference. Perhaps other grammars (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, etc) have terms to distinguish the difference. It's similar to how we have one word for love and Greek has 4(?).

Carl C. said...

A good chunk of my 20's was spent in Texas - Lubbock & Longview - and I enjoyed getting to know all shades of Texans, from textbook ('we don't dial 911, we dial 357') to Cajun. May God bless you and your family in adjusting to the new culture and ministry.

trogdor said...

I was going to axe which of the two sides is worse to violate - a pastor pridefully acting as if the church is his (presumptuous claim of ownership), or neglecting to shepherd as one who will be called to account (neglect of stewardship). But aren't they really two sides of the same coin?

So instead I'll just axe - where would one go to smoke at your church? Would you rather have someone smoking or chewing gum during a sermon?

DJP said...

During a sermon?

Preferably neither.


Kaj Ballantyne said...

Favourite line from an old guy in a church I grew up in:

"Smoking won't send you to hell, son ... it'll just make you smell like you've been there"

Thomas Louw said...

This post is what makes you "That guy"

DJP said...

I am deeply insulted that you would think I would even watch such a movie as that to be able to recognize that line. Hmph.

Oh wait