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Righting the Ship

In light of both Paul’s thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ faith and his defense of his faithful ministry, I thought it would be useful to spend some time reflecting on what we can do when it looks like the church’s ministry is turning unfaithful. The reality in both our individual walks with God and a church’s ministry is that we are either walking with God or walking away from him. Our goal is to faithfully walk with him, and so we need to think through how we right the ship, as it were, if things appear to be trending away from God.

The first point, then, is that it should be our habit to constantly assess the faithfulness of ministry so that things don’t have a chance to turn unfaithful. That is Peter’s basic point towards the end of his second letter when he says, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability” (2 Pet 3:17 ESV). “Peter’s point is that the readers have been amply warned about the danger of false teaching. Forewarned should mean that they are forearmed—ready to resist the perverse attractions of the false teachers’ heresies.”[1] To say it another way, the best defense against unfaithfulness is a good offense, which in this case is a conscious effort by the whole of the body of Christ to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18 ESV).

Nevertheless, the best defense is not perfect in this fallen world. False teachers can slip in unnoticed; doctrinal drift can begin; spiritual stagnation can set in. What do we do then? Using Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 as a launching point, the first place to start when things appear to be turning unfaithful is personal engagement with the one who is straying. This is true whether we are confronting the leadership of the church or other members.

How do we do that? Because we live in the time of Christ’s grace and mercy, our initial approach to anything that looks like false teaching, doctrinal drift, or spiritual stagnation, among other things, is one of gracious and gentle addressing of specific points. Vague engagement won’t be helpful, neither will strident confrontation. Moreover, we are looking for balance. We don’t want to be more “merciful” than God by overlooking warning signs, but we also don’t want to be more severe than God.

Our hope, of course, is that a gentle and gracious engagement will be the instrument for the Spirit’s work in the heart of an offender to repent and seek reconciliation. However, if an initial personal engagement is not successful in opening eyes to warning signs, then Jesus instructs us to get additional members of the church involved in an attempt to show the seriousness of the situation. Finally, if that fails to get the proper attention, then Jesus says, “tell it to the church.”

Now, when the subject of potential unfaithfulness is the church, or specifically its leaders, things can be more complicated. But one of the great benefits of our denomination is that we view the church as something greater than our local congregation. When the leadership of a local church appears to be turning unfaithful and won’t listen to its members, those members can “tell it to the church” by bringing their concerns to the Presbytery. Each Presbytery has a clerk who is responsible for receiving communications. Moreover, each Presbytery has a committee that is responsible for addressing issues with churches and pastors within its geographic bounds. When things seem to be turning unfaithful at a local church, that church still has recourse to “tell it to the church” by raising the matter with Presbytery.

I think that last point is important to stress because it can often feel like we’re struggling alone against false teaching, doctrinal drift, and spiritual stagnation when we see it creeping into the church. But the truth is that we’re not alone. The church is larger than each local congregation, which means that there is a ready way to be an active member of Christ’s body even if the leadership of the local church does not have ears to hear.

Our hope, of course, is that we will all be faithful to the end. But one of the best preventive measures of unfaithfulness is persistent prayer for the church and its leaders. We all need prayer, and we all need to pray that God would preserve us to the end for the sake of his glory.

[1] Douglas J. Moo, 2 Peter, and Jude: From Biblical Text-- to Contemporary Life, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 213.

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