Is probably not what most of us expect. We expect some sort of direct challenge from without, something like The Da Vinci Code. But I think the greatest danger that we face is from within, and I think it comes from well meaning pastors.
How could well meaning pastors pose the greatest threat to evangelical churches today?
Do they deny the truth?
No, the pastors who pose the greatest threat to the church today will all confess belief in the right things. They will say they believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, that Jesus saves, and even that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
So how can these guys who mean well and make the good confession pose such a threat to the church?
Many pastors are a threat to their churches because they show from what they say and do that they do not understand what Christianity is. They think Christianity is the best form of therapy. They think Christianity is about self-help. They think Christianity is about better marriages, better parent-child relations, better attitudes and performance at work, and on and on. You can see that this is what they think because this is what they preach. Fundamentally, they think that Christianity is about success here and now. Also, for them, when it comes to how we do church, what the Bible says does not matter. What works best is what we should do.
But Christianity is not primarily about any of that. Christianity is primarily about the Gospel: about how a holy God has created a good world, in which the humans he made to worship him and enjoy communion with him have rejected him as King and sought to set themselves up as god in his place. Christianity is about these humans deserving the almighty wrath of God, and instead of judging them God sends his Son Jesus to take the punishment rebels deserve. Christianity is about telling this true story in the words of the Bible so that by the power of the Holy Spirit people come to see the world and themselves correctly.
Christianity is about the Triune God and the two natures of Christ. Christianity holds that humans are hopeless sinners but God has sent the Savior. Christianity is about the Holy Spirit supernaturally causing people to be born again so that they love this story and find in it their hope and joy. Christianity is about trusting the Word of God with all our hearts and not leaning on our own understanding—or our own ideas about what works or what is relevant. Christianity is about longing for the return of Christ, who, when he comes, will set up his Kingdom, which means that this is not our home.
Pastors who present Christianity as therapy and self-help do not present Christianity. They are like the liberals that J. Gresham Machen denounced. Machen said that people who don’t believe the Bible should be honest and stop calling themselves Christians because they have in fact created a new religion that is not to be identified with Christianity.
Similarly, the promoters of the American religion of self-help and therapeutic pop-psychology ought to be honest: they don’t believe the Bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). If they believed that the Bible really does contain everything we need to be saved and to live lives that are pleasing to God, they would preach the Bible from their pulpits. Not only would they preach the Bible trusting that God has revealed what he thinks his people need, trusting that God knows better than they do what is relevant, they would organize their churches according to the dictates of the Bible rather than the dictates of the market analysis and what works in the corporate world.
So how do you avoid winding up with a pastor who will harm the church by turning Christianity into the American religion of self help therapy?
1. Look at the biblical qualifications for men in the ministry (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9), and ask pastoral candidates direct questions about whether they meet these qualifications. Ask the man’s references whether he lives up to these statements. Do not assume that every candidate will meet these qualifications, and don’t assume that every candidate understands these qualifications. Ask him to explain the qualifications.
2. Since the feature that most distinguishes the qualifications for an elder (pastor) from the qualifications for a deacon is that the elder be “apt to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), pay close attention to his teaching. Seek to discern whether this man “holds firmly to the trustworthy word as taught,” whether he knows enough theology “to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit 1:9, ESV).
3. Based on what you have heard of his preaching, ask yourself these questions:
a. Was the main point of the text he was preaching the main point of his sermon? (If he did not preach a text, happily remove his name from consideration).
b. Does God rest heavily upon this man? Is it evident that he fears God? Can you tell that he knows that “teachers will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1)? Does he “tremble at the Word of God” (Isa 66:2)? Is the Word of God like a burning in his bones that he cannot hold in (Jer 20:9)?
c. Does he think that his main task is the explanation of the Bible, which is useful and relevant (2 Tim 3:16), or does he think that he needs to organize the Bible according to his wisdom in order for it to be useful and relevant?
d. Is this man going to help us to understand and live on the great truths of Christianity?
e. Is this man a theologian, or is he a just a gifted speaker with a good heart?
f. Do I trust this man’s ability to interpret the Bible and tell me what it means?
4. Ask direct questions about what he understands pastoral ministry to be about:
a. Is pastoral ministry about “the ministry of the Word and prayer” (Acts 6:4), or is it about building a massive corporation that is successful by worldly standards?
b. Is pastoral ministry about the power of the Spirit of God through the Word of God, or is it about “persuasive speech” and slick presentations? (cf. 1 Cor 2:1–5).
c. Is the great commission (Matt 28:18–20) about notching decisions on our belts or about making disciples who have been taught all that Jesus commanded?
d. Are Jesus’ instructions about church discipline (Matt 18:15–18) to be taken seriously or is he not going to practice church discipline since it might be bad for business?
e. Is church membership mainly about a big number for us to report, or should church members really take the “one another’s” in the New Testament seriously?
f. Are the main tasks of pastoral ministry prayer, teaching, and shepherding souls, or is pastoral ministry more about growing the business and managing a conglomerate of campuses?
g. What are his plans for doing evangelism?
h. What are his plans for doing discipleship?
i. What are his plans for praying for the members of the church?
Paul told the elders (that is, the pastors) of the church in Ephesus that wolves would arise from within their ranks to destroy the flock (Acts 20:29–30). Jesus said that the false prophets would be like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15). It might be hard to recognize these well meaning pastors as wolves, but Jesus said we would know them by their fruits (Matt 7:16–20).
Let me add that I am not necessarily saying that every pastor who does not preach the Bible and who arranges the church according to the business model rather than the biblical model is intentionally trying to destroy the flock. No doubt some of these guys are evil. They are in the ministry for their own advancement, they don’t like the Bible, and so they preach the religion they prefer and they pursue church according to their preferences. But not all are openly hostile to Christianity.
So what do we say about well meaning pastors who propagate an un-Christian, un-biblical, worldly kind of Christianity? I think the words that Jesus spoke about those who corrupted the Old Covenant are fitting: “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matt 15:14, ESV).
Let us heed the words of Jesus about what a good shepherd does, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Only Jesus can lay down his life for the sheep in the way he did at the cross. But his under-shepherds can lay down their lives for the sheep as they take up their crosses and follow in the footsteps Jesus, loving, teaching, discipling, evangelizing, praying, and protecting the sheep from the wolves. No servant is greater than his master (John 15:20).