by Matthew Raley
The tired line on ministry is that it’s not our job to produce results, only to be faithful. Unfortunately, I hear this most often from people who agree with me theologically.
I am convinced that God alone produces spiritual life. I hold and teach the reformed understanding of salvation, that Jesus Christ has purchased a finished redemption for his people, and that he sovereignly works out this redemption in their lives. This includes opening our eyes to his truth and enabling us to believe him.
Life is God’s alone to give.
But some pastors in this doctrinal camp, when discussing the practice of ministry, misapply these truths. They’re too quick to explain a lack of spiritual growth in their churches as God’s problem, not theirs. Many failings of craft can be responsible for people not growing in Christ. If a pastor doesn’t make truths clear but masks them in technical language, people will not grow. If he purposefully opens the Bible to both mind and emotions, life will blossom in most.
The sovereignty of God should not be twisted into an excuse for inattentive, self-satisfied workmanship.
God has given congregations tasks to do. He declares that he will give spiritual life in Christ through specific methods, like preaching. Devoting ourselves to these tasks with fervency is at the heart of what I am calling the Colossians 1.28 plan. I am so crass as to call it a business plan: we can direct resources into this toil and expect a return on the investment, namely, maturity in Christ. We should be bold in this expectation because God has declared that he is in this business.
So, I have laid out five outcomes for which we should toil (here and here), sketching the nature of the resources that need to be directed to toward them. I believe that, without these outcomes, church life is mere words.
Here is the final outcome I see as essential:
6. Public integrity in spiritual governance.
Spiritual governance consists of the actions and systems by which elders help restore people from specific sins. Jesus teaches his process for restoring people in Matthew 18.10-35. The purpose of confronting a sinful action or pattern is to arrive at forgiveness and repentance. The purpose is not to punish (which is why I increasingly feel the common label “church discipline” is inaccurate).
When spiritual governance is effective, the average church member understands his or her responsibility to keep relationships clear of breaches, lies, and grudges, doing everything possible to give and seek forgiveness. In this atmosphere, there is an informal ethic that limits gossip. Individuals seek counsel how to resolve their conflicts respectfully. Personal conflicts, in the vast majority of cases, do not break out into public feuds.
I am not talking about theory. In ten years here at Orland, this is the ethic the congregation has demonstrated over and over. Our life together has never been without conflict. But we have seen continuous restoration.
This is long-term, constant, exhausting work. In Orland, it has the been fruit of many senior pastors striving against bitterness over many decades. I teach on this issue regularly, and the elders are constantly advising people about conflict resolution. The counseling and discipleship systems I described last week are essential.
Because churches have committed so many resources to entertainment, they have no time or energy left for this labor. They simply are not governing in the way Christ called them. Pastors are continually “putting out fires” rather than teaching people how to keep from starting them.
The outcome of governance has to be public integrity. Part of this integrity is the leadership’s record of discretion and achievement in helping people be restored to each other in Christ. Another part of it is simple justice. Known sins that go unaddressed, hasty judgments, inaccurate public statements, vendettas, and ignorance of Scriptural application will harm the leadership’s public integrity. The aim of governance to build a confidence, even amid many imperfections and mistakes, that leaders are going to initiate restoration in appropriate ways, at the right levels.
The word for this is trust. Without it, the whole spiritual life of the church degrades into mere words.
Here is the heart of what I have been saying over the past few months.
Local churches have been fooling themselves that they can accomplish God’s business by toiling in politics and entertainment. As a result of this confused planning, churches are closing. Let churches toil at God’s business again, and we will see amazing results.
A final thought about how this relates to genuine conservatism next week.