Our recent annual conference dealt with grace issues and the local church. In this article I address an issue which was touched on by various conference messages (though no message directly approached this subject).
In Acts 20 Paul met with the elders from the church at Ephesus. He urged them to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock” (20:28). He then warned “that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (20:29b-30). The shepherds at the church of Ephesus, like all biblical undershepherds, are to watch the flock carefully, and part of that ministry is guarding and protecting them against those who would harm them.
How Do Shepherds Guard Their Flocks?
Literal shepherds guarded their flocks with rods and staffs and sometimes, like David, with slings. If bears or lions came, they would protect the flock.
Spiritual shepherds (i.e., the leaders of churches, who are called elders in passages like Acts 20, but who are sometimes called board members or deacons today) guard their flocks with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. When wolves come in to steal the sheep, the Word of God is the weapon needed.
However, it is often too late to teach sound doctrine once the wolves have already come and confused the flock. There must be training in advance so that when the false teaching comes, they are steeled against it.
I have noticed a disturbing trend in some Free Grace churches. The teaching pastor/elder proclaims the gospel clearly. However, he does so in a way that is sure to offend as few people as possible.
For example, he may not critique the prevalent view of assurance that links our assurance to our perseverance in good works, making certainty impossible before death. He may not mention all the things that are not conditions of eternal life, like turning from sins, praying a prayer, being baptized, walking an aisle, commitment of life, etc.
The teaching pastor, with the support of the other elders, does this in order to reach more people. While the goal is noble, there is a price to be paid for failing to instruct the flock fully. People who must move out of the area and find another church often are not sufficiently aware of the issues they may encounter. They are especially vulnerable to false doctrine. In addition, even those who remain are in danger of being stolen away by those who proclaim false views of salvation and assurance.
Another trend I’ve noticed that bothers me is that some Free Grace churches allow people who hold views contrary to the church’s doctrinal position to teach Sunday School and sometimes even preach in the pulpit. Some Free Grace churches even allow people who hold to Lordship Salvation to teach and preach (often with the proviso that they not speak about Lordship Salvation).
This is a dangerous practice. It gives people in the church the idea that the doctrines held by these teachers are acceptable. Surely the church leaders wouldn’t allow people to preach and teach who weren’t sound on the gospel, people logically reason.
Shepherds Must Be Aware of Modern False Teachings And Must Instruct Their Flocks
In order for church leaders to guard a flock, they must be aware of what is being taught today. As a group, the elders should read widely. (I recommend the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society and Grace in Focus!) When they discover dangerous teachings, they should make sure that the flock is warned about the errors and inoculated against them.
This doesn’t mean that there needs to be a heresy-of-the-month sermon on the first Sunday of each month. Rather, it means that the elders need to be aware and to provide proper instruction. An effective way to do this is by inserting appropriate comments in sermons or lessons that relate to a false teaching that is abroad. That can only be done, however, if those who teach are aware of various false teaching.
Churches need not only to teach orthodox doctrine, but also to warn about false doctrine. There are many unorthodox things being taught today.
Clearly one of the most important areas with which shepherds should warn the flock concerns the gospel.
Assurance is often linked to perseverance in good works. A leading Reformed educator and pastor admitted to me recently that he isn’t sure he is saved. He said that no one could be. His reason was that he believes only those who persevere in faith and good works will be saved. And he knows that the Scriptures teach that no one can be sure he will persevere prior to death. Thus in his view, the apostle Paul was expressing doubts about his own salvation in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
Believers need to know the perseverance is not a condition of eternal salvation.
Many leading Evangelical scholars and pastors are now saying that the heathen are not lost after all. They are saying that people of all religions who have never heard the gospel can be saved by genuinely seeking and serving God in their religion. Of course, this makes missions unnecessary, since people can be saved without hearing about Jesus Christ. In fact, it could be argued that sending missionaries is not a good idea, since those who hear the gospel and reject it are now unable to be saved apart from faith in Christ.
Shepherds should make sure their people are well taught on this point. There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). No one comes to the Father but by Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Devout people in other religions who are genuinely seeking God indeed will be saved, but not apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ. They will be saved because God always gives more light to those who respond to the light they have. If a person genuinely continues to seek God, he will eventually be told the message of the gospel (see Acts 10 and the story of Cornelius and his household).
Clearly the nature of saving faith needs careful attention. Many are saying today that saving faith is not like ordinary faith, that it includes obedience, turning from sins, commitment of life, perseverance, etc. Others are teaching that it necessarily results in those things, so that if you find that you are not highly committed, obedient, etc., you are told you should doubt whether you were ever saved in the first place. Shepherds need to insure that the people are taught that faith is simply the conviction that something is true. Saving faith is the conviction that Jesus Christ guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him (e.g., John 6:47; 11:25-27).
Similarly elders should see to it that clear instruction is giving about topics like repentance, eternal security, the deity of Christ, confession of sins, baptism, confessing Christ, decisionism, etc.
My point is that the shepherds need to keep ahead of the wolves. They need to teach their flocks the Word of God in such a way that they are not likely to be swept away by false teaching. Otherwise, the shepherds are not properly watching over the flock.
Shepherds, Guard Your Flocks
Elders should not be needlessly offensive. Yet there is a place for pastors to warn the flock. And they cannot warn people of specific dangers without risking offending some who believe those false teachings.
Church leaders should be as tolerant as Scripture allows. However, tolerance ends where doctrinal defection on fundamentals begins (e.g., Galatians 1:8-9; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:15-21).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd. The leaders of local churches represent Him in the local bodies. They are to shepherd the flock in the name of Chief Shepherd in light of His soon return. Shepherds, guard your flocks.