He sang in our church’s choir. His wife was part of our musical accompaniment. Week after week they helped lead our Sunday morning worship, and week after week they participated in the small group Bible study we held in our home. They were solid, mature Christians. They listened to all the right Christian teachers. They read all the right Christian books. They said all the right things. Until that one evening…
I don’t remember how the subject came up, but whatever we were talking about, the husband made a series of vague remarks that prompted me to ask a key question: “But what about Jesus’ resurrection body?”
“What makes you think Jesus has a resurrection body?” he shot back. “I don’t think He does.”
A confused silence fell over the room. Some of the Bible study participants did not fully grasp what had just been said, but as I continued to press the issue, an uncomfortable clarity was registering on everyone’s face.
“How can you say that Jesus doesn’t have a physical body?” I asked.
“Your problem is that you’re just too stuck in your narrow Reformed theology!”
“This is not an issue limited to Reformed theology. It’s about one of the fundamentals of the faith. The Bible says, ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,’ and it’s talking about His body.” (1 Cor. 15:17, ESV)
His wife was the tight-lipped one. He was the loose cannon, and soon his face was turning as red as his voice was becoming shrill.
The more I look back on it after all these years, the more I tend to think that the reactions we were witnessing were those of people who had been caught. After an uncomfortable pause, another man in the group tried to intercede on behalf of the orthodox teaching of Christ’s resurrection body, but the folded-arm, walled-off exterior they presented foretold the futility of any such appeal.
We moved on.
Within a couple weeks we had brought the issue to the attention of our pastor who decided to meet with them. I was told that the meeting did not go well—and, of course, once again it was our fault, not theirs. In spite of the fact that their heretical view of Christ’s resurrection contradicts the Scriptures, and is essentially the same position as held by such cults as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were just being “too narrow.”
We never did learn the reason that they held so doggedly to that view, but where there is one heresy there are usually others attached to it. This brings up the question of how they were able to get so far in our church for so long without being detected. Was this a failure of our membership process, or were they simply that good at conning our leaders?
“The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment,” wrote Paul, “but the sins of others appear later,” (1 Timothy 5:24, ESV). This couple clearly fell into the latter category, which can be much more dangerous when it involves a heretic who worms his way into a church, cultivating relationships that can be tapped as a source of allies when the heretic’s false teachings finally become an issue. In many cases, the longer it takes to finally expose such a person, the harder it can be to deal with him biblically.
I know this from painful personal experience. I have stories. Boy, do I have stories! And some of them involve not only the exposure of a false teacher, but also the exposure of leadership that lacked the knowledge and training necessary to confront him or her biblically. Some of the things I’ve experienced are enough to set your teeth on edge, if you care at all for your local church. But one of the problems with my stories is that they involve people who are still living, and who might recognize themselves in my presentation, and it is not my purpose to embarrass anyone here. So let me tell you a story that has been passed on by Steve Brown, which strikes exceedingly close to home:
A pastor friend I’ll call Bill loves to work with college students. One evening Bill came straight from campus to an evening meeting of the elders of his church. My friend has a rather bent sense of humor, and this evening was no exception.
“You guys would not believe what I just heard,” my friend said as he took off his coat. “It was crazy! But we have a meeting to get to and you guys wouldn’t be interested.”
Everyone knows the best way to get someone’s attention is to tell them a little bit of what could be a juicy story, and then tell them they wouldn’t want to hear the rest. “Oh, we have time,” one of the elders protested. “Tell us!”
“Well,” Bill said reluctantly, “if you insist. This afternoon, some of the Christian kids were talking about Jesus. Do you know what they were saying?”
“They were saying—I can hardly believe it—that Jesus is God. Can you believe they could be so naive? You’d think they had never read the Bible!”
Looking around the room, my friend continued, “What do you think about that?”
One elder began rather haltingly, “Well, that does sound crazy. But, on the other hand, you can’t blame young people. It’s the time in their lives when they can be wrong and it won’t cost them anything.”
“I can’t believe they would think that!” another elder proclaimed.
“Bill,” still another elder said, hesitantly, “I’m only a layman, and I don’t know much about the Bible and all, but I sort of thought that Jesus was God.”
As the discussion went around the room it became apparent that most of the elders were as disturbed as my friend about the college students’ theology.
And then to everyone’s surprise my friend got up from his chair, walked over to the coat rack, and started putting on his coat.
“Where are you going?” one of the elders asked.
“I’m getting out of here!” Bill exclaimed, starting for the door. “This is a meeting of the ruling board of this church, and you guys don’t even know the central doctrine of the Christian faith. I’ve put my children under your direction, and I’m not even sure you’re Christians.”1Stephen Brown, When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough, (Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1990), 136-137.
Fortunately for those elders, their pastor’s goal was not to make them look foolish, but to help them be better elders, as Steve Brown explains:
Of course Bill, who is a Bible teacher, was making a very cogent point regarding the theological sophistication of those elders. Through that one incident he was able to teach in a way he would never have been able to teach in a sermon. When he finally took off his coat and sat back down, they were ready to listen.2Ibid.
Perhaps this story is a bit extreme. I would like to think that the vast majority of elders in evangelical churches know the doctrine of the deity of Christ, as well as how important it is. But in spite of how much I might try to reassure myself that most Bible-believing churches are not vulnerable on this point, there are plenty of other areas where many of those same churches are weak and exposed, sitting ducks as it were for the next half-baked, heretical doctrinal fad or fatal accommodation to our increasingly-pagan culture.
I am fortunate to belong to a denomination—the same one that Steve Brown belongs to, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—that in its Book of Church Order (BCO) requires all of its church officers (elders and deacons) to be trained. Church-planting pastors are responsible “to train potential officers” (BCO 8-6) and once a church is established it is required to provide future nominees for elder and deacon with “instruction in the qualifications and work of the office” that includes “knowledge of Bible content” and doctrine (BCO 24-1). While I can’t personally vouch for how well every congregation in my denomination fulfills this mandate, I do know that my own church has historically taken it very seriously, and as a currently-serving elder there I am involved in helping to oversee it.
But how many denominations or independent local churches actually require their elders and deacons to have any kind of training? How many make sure to provide it? I have no way of knowing, but if my personal experience in various kinds of churches over the past four decades is any indication, not nearly enough.
Even in churches that pride themselves on “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) and honoring the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10), when it comes to choosing elders too many of them look for men who are successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, or some other professional, which are qualifications noticeably absent from 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. And when it comes to choosing deacons, too many assume they’re looking for the ecclesiastical equivalent of a handyman instead of studying the biblical basis for that office in Acts 6 and 1 Tim. 3:8-13. (Note: the church’s first martyr, and one of its first evangelists, were both deacons!)
Why are not more churches preparing their elders and deacons for the significant spiritual responsibilities of their offices? Why are not more churches seeking to train their young men for leadership, even years in advance of when they might become eligible for church office (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6)?
Paul instructed Timothy “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:2, ESV) This verse is often used as the biblical warrant for seminary education, and there is nothing wrong with using it for that. Just as Paul left the details of implementation up to Timothy, so also we are free to implement this command in a variety of ways. But we are not free to ignore the fact that in its original context this was a command to be fulfilled in the context of the local church. There were no seminaries or Bible colleges in the first century. Fulfilling 2 Tim. 2:2 in those days meant making arrangement for the special instruction of future teachers and leaders at the local church level.
Why are not more local churches committed to this? It is not as though there is a lack of available training materials. In that department we have an embarrassment of riches. If your church has nothing in place to ensure that there will be a generation of biblically-literate, doctrinally-knowledgeable elders and deacons to replace the one that is serving today, why not? Is it because the current elders and deacons are not very well trained themselves, and thus it doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal? That’s not a good reason. In fact, it’s an invitation to disaster.
Great article, Ron. I was put through this very training when I became a Ruling Elder in the PCA. They took us straight through the Westminster Confession. It took a year! Our church also takes the Deacons through it as well. For those who aren’t familiar with the WCF, it’s basically a systematic theology. It teaches on each point of essential Christian doctrine. Once the candidate completes the training, then are given a written and oral exam. The session (board of elders) then decides if that candidate has a solid grasp in basic theology.
This is why I love being a part of the PCA, and there are other denominations that do this as well. We need trained elders and deacons.