Earlier this week, Mark Dever over at T4G posted this great quote from David Wells’ Above All Earthly Pow’rs:
This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the Church today is a serious matter. When the Church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.
With tremendous economy of words, Wells articulates why it is churches split. They abandon the Word of God.
I don’t necessarily mean the kind of abandonment that rejects the Word altogether. I don’t mean they assault the Word by deny its inspiration and authority or doubting its historicity. I think Wells is describing, and I think church splits occur because churches demonstrate in their practice their belief that the Scripture is not sufficient for faith and conduct.
In Wells words, “a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.” What an apt description of so much of church life and individual Christian life: a “daily dereliction” of the Word of God leads to the unraveling of the church.
When, where and how does this “daily dereliction” occur?
First, Wells rightly points out that it occurs in too much preaching today. Better minds have written better treatments of the problem with preaching today… so I have only one comment on this subject. I make it with fear and trembling knowing that my own inadequacies as a preacher are displayed every Sunday before God, the elect of heaven, and a couple hundred saints and sinners. But here it is: failure to preach God’s Word clearly, fully, urgently and only is treason against God our Father, Christ our Lord, and His bride the church. It’s high treason. By preaching God’s Word “clearly, fully, urgently and only” I don’t mean every sermon is perfect, that every sermon includes everything that could be said about a given text, or that illustrations and analogies are a no-no. I merely mean that if the “Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people” as Wells puts it, then failure to preach it is to oppose God at the point of His divine rescue of the world with the very means of that rescue. Preaching that fails to center on the Word of God is treasonous.
Second, abandonment of the Word of God occurs in counseling. The impulse in the Christian ministry is to approach counseling as “talk therapy.” The tendency is to over-empathize and to under-discipline. I mean “discipline” in its broadest sense. The Word of God is to shape the person’s affections, thoughts, desires, and choices and, thereby, discipline, form or mold the person. When I fail to do this, I’m writing a script for the unraveling of that person’s life and the church’s life… and they stand there “unwittingly” being shaped by the wrong tool. I’m convinced that I miss far too many opportunities to simply open the Bible and apply it to the persons and cases before me. When I do that, I demonstrate my lack of confidence in the sufficiency of the Scripture. I’m not taking up the nouthetic—integrationist debate here. I’m simply saying that even though I think I’m more nouthetic in my attitude… in my practice, I’m quite lacking. And that’s to the detriment of my church’s unity and the ability to prevent a split. In those closer encounters between pastor and sheep, I have the opportunity to model what it means to bring every thought captive and to not go beyond what is written and to thereby teach that sheep how to do so in her or his own life. Modeling and teaching that should pay dividends when a question arises that threatens to split the church. If habitually and instinctively individuals resort to the Word of God at such times, bringing themselves under its imperatives, then I’m a long way toward warding off painful division. And the church is a lot closer to being of one mind… God’s mind.
Third, I think churches often split because they’ve abandoned the Word of God in charting, teaching and communicating, explaining and/or defending future directions for the church. The place where you really need good elders and leaders is in resolving those questions, issues or disputes that have no clear biblical answer and are therefore a matter of Christian liberty or wisdom. It’s easy to chart, communicate and defend a decision when it’s a matter of right or wrong, obedience or disobedience. But when it’s a matter of wisdom… things become a bit trickier. The tendency at times is to insist you’ve felt or received “God’s leading” or a particular “calling” as an explanation. Or, there are knee-jerk, defensive appeals for “submitting to leadership.” Our people see through this. After all, they have “leadings” and “callings,” too. The church develops the habit of resolving disputes by deciding who offers the strongest insistence that “God told me so” or “you need to submit.” In a congregational context this is deadly. It teaches the people that there really is no authority outside of ourselves when it comes to the less clear matters, which in the minds of most people are the most important or at least the most impassioned matters. Even in cases where the decision rests on wisdom or prudence, our best judgment about a particular question, we should still demonstrate how that decision is wise in light of clearer commands and examples in Scripture. We should rehearse or display for our folks something of our wrestling with and searching of the Scripture in order to arrive at this decision so that they see us submitting to God’s Word in the unclear or tough times. We do this with the hopes that they will learn to habitually do the same in cases that threaten a church split.
Pastor’s Personal Life
Fourth, and finally, the centrality of the Word of God must be demonstrated in the pastor’s own personal life. This is almost axiomatic. But as another Wells put it: “we’ve reached the point where the first duty of intelligent man is to restate the obvious.” When I survey the lives of televangelists and many of the popular authors my people enjoy and give ear to, I’m terrified at what they are imbibing. Today, to be a “successful pastor” means imaging forth upper crust attitudes, ambitions and achievements. The Word of God is not only not central to those lives, but it’s not even in the picture except to justify my belly’s desires. The Word must surely be central to our ministrations, but it must also be central to our personal devotion and choices. I need to be the model of this, even as I learning to practice it in the church. I’m afraid that sometimes the reason I’m not helping people bring every thought captive is because my every thought isn’t captive. I’m not sufficiently arrested with the glories and beauties of the Savior revealed in His Word to be instinctively and habitually pointing others there. And that works against one of my major objectives… preventing a church split.
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