My Story: 5 Solas Church
Well, I knew I would eventually experience this, even as I’m sure that every true minister of the gospel has gone through it. I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I recently had my first real taste of betrayal and heartache in the pastoral ministry. Here is my story, which will then lead into some hopeful words of encouragement and counsel for other pastors and church planters…
On July 15th we began a small new church plant called, 5 Solas Church. The main part of my “core group” was a good friend (along with his wife and children) who I had known for about 6 years. A week before, on July 8th, we had all gotten together to pray over the church plant, and to enter into covenant membership together as a local church. It was a joyous time for us all.
This friend enjoyed reading all of the same solid Reformed books that I loved, and he was a man like myself who was grieved at the lack of gospel preaching in far too many churches. This was a man who longed to see doctrine and practice come together in the local church. He was a man who was grieved that so many pastors weren’t actually shepherding the flock and calling men to account when sin was ruining their lives and marriages. There was no one who I thought would had made a better partner in a church plant, and I rejoiced when God in his providence made a way so that we could finally engage in this work together.
To paint a fuller picture of the kind of practical love that was shown to him as my friend over the years: I had given him many books over the years in order to help him build a solid home library. Even though we often struggle finically, we had given their family money on more then one occasion to help them out when they had need or he was out of work. When his oldest daughter’s birthday rolled around and I found out that her Bible was missing several pages, I decided to give her a Bible worthy to give to one of my own daughters: a goatskin Crossway ESV Heirloom Legacy Bible. All of that to say, the love demonstrated to him and his family over the years was not “in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
This was a man who I poured into over the years, a man who I trusted. It seemed like a dream come true to be able to plant a church with such a good friend and like-minded brother. In fact, on the first week we baptized one of my daughters who had made a credible profession of faith a couple of months earlier. Friends and family came in support and to celebrate with us as we baptized my daughter and began this great church planting effort. I knew trials would be ahead, but I didn’t expect this to happen, and especially not for it to happen so soon…
Watching Sin and Hypocrisy Destroy
Needless to say with that kind of background, for betrayal and heartache to happen with this particular individual only 6 short weeks after we begun, it was unexpected and extremely sad.
I have heard other pastors describe the pastoral ministry as having a front row seat as you watch people’s sin and hypocrisy destroy their lives. I would have liked to think that I could have seen the warning signs to discern such problems before they escalated to this point. However, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 says,
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
You hope for the best in those who you sincerely love in Christ. You don’t see it coming because of the love and hope you have for that person. So, in hindsight you can perhaps see that there were several red flags, but at the time you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. After all, we are all “works in progress.”
What exactly happened you ask? There was a consistent pattern of failure with regard to his family, and in raising his children in particular. The children exhibited a consistent pattern of behavior that was disrespectful, inconsiderate, unruly, and destructive. Several specific examples could be given, but it is sufficient to say that it was evidently something that needed to be addressed, especially in a man who aspired to be an elder and/or an overseas longterm missionary. The primary text that I felt I must address with him was 1 Timothy 3:4-5, where one Paul gives one of the qualifications for an elder. He writes,
“He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
When Paul writes that “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,” this implies that it is the man’s responsibility, and that it is entirely possible for the man to do regardless of the children’s age or if they are still unregenerate. There is no blame-shifting here. It is the man’s responsibility to do this, and the Scriptures give clear and plain instruction on how the man is to manage his household.
At first I attempted to address the issue gently. You see, as a church plant we sometimes meet at our house for corporate worship. To try to fix this without making the kid’s behavior an issue, we took many preventative precautions, and my young children stepped up and did everything in their power to help these kids act somewhat decently. Nothing worked. To make matters worse, my wife has been having ongoing severe chronic health issues, and we very recently discovered that it is something called “Mast Cell Activation Syndrome,” which has no cure. The unruly behavior of their children was taking a severe toll on my wife, and causing her disease to flare up even more. So, after my wife’s body nearly shut down due to all of the stress one Sunday—kids screaming at the top of their lungs just to get attention, purposefully smearing apples and watermelon slices all over the floor and furniture, climbing on the screened in door which they had already previous broken twice, and almost breaking our neighbor’s screen, all without any correction or restraint from the parents—without being too specific or critical, I told them later we needed to do something different on Sundays to try to keep the kids a little more under control. I gave two clear reasons: First, because of my wife’s health. Second, as I had just preached that morning, our lives ought to adorn our doctrine, and the kid’s destructive behavior was spilling over even to our neighbor’s house which, needless to say, would not adorn the gospel if their kids destroyed his property as a result of us having a “church service” at our house. His response was,
“I was going to say to, if we’re at you guys house again to tell Katie don’t feel bad if she needs to step away and go upstairs to either relax or take a nap or whatever, if she’s overwhelmed.”
Clearly he didn’t get it. Besides the simple fact that there would be no way for my wife (or any other normal person) to be able sleep through all of that chaos, it completely ignored the fact that such unchecked behavior was not adorning the gospel. So, I had to be more direct in stating that my wife’s health wasn’t the main issue, and that her health only made it so that I could not simply continue to ignore the problem of children who were clearly not being disciplined and trained in their home as they ought to be. I explained how part of Christian parenting is helping our kids know how to love their neighbor as themselves, which means being able to act with a reasonable amount of respect and consideration of others, and it means that the parents discipline and correct their kids when they are being either unthoughtful or disrespectful others.
I offered some practical ways to help as they worked in issues in the home, such as keeping the kids with us for fellowship afterwards rather than allowing them to go do whatever. I also offered practical biblical counsel on how to train the children in the home. I also reaffirmed my purpose in addressing it saying, “I say these things to build up, not tear down.” My intention was to help him and his family, to show them love in a way that was apparently needed on a practical level.
However, there was no interaction. There was no desire to discuss it. There was no apology for the several things that had broken around my house. There was no apology for the stress it caused on my wife. There wasn’t even a simple acknowledgement that the behavior was wrong on any level. The response I received a couple days later when I asked was simply, “We’re done.”
When you consider all that I said above about our friendship, the practical ways that love was shown for him and his family over the years, and his own professed desire for accountability and sound doctrine to lead to right practice in all of life—leaving in such a way is no longer just a minor decision or disagreement. It is betrayal. He not only forsook me as a friend, but he also abandoned us and left off the work of the Lord to which he had committed himself. As far as I can see, it is all because he was entirely unwilling to even acknowledge where he was struggling and do what the Bible clearly commands him to do, both as as a husband and a father.
So, as of August 22nd, it was made official, and they had left the church. As far as I know from our last communication about it, he has no intentions of looking for another church. Needless to say, it is truly heartbreaking to watch a former friend and co-laborer go off in a bad direction with his family and refuse any practical help or biblical counsel. I had only sought to show love, but it was not returned. I sought to shepherd him and care for his family, but it was utterly rejected without even entertaining the possibility of further discussion. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Galatians 4:16, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
Pressing On With Joy
So, the real question for myself and for other pastors and church planters is: How do you go through something like that and not grow bitter? How do you suffer such a loss and neither be angry at the man, nor discouraged in the ministry? In short: How do you press on with joy?
There are two basic answers to those questions: First, no offense is so great as my own against God. Second, in truth there is only one church planter, Jesus Christ.
To put it another way, in the words of James White: “Theology matters.” I don’t know how I could possibly press on with joy apart from having a deeply rooted sound theology, because the answer to both of those questions is rooted in having good theology.
Just think: In the same week I had to come to terms with the fact that my beloved wife has a serious chronic disease, and I also lost one of my best friends. It could have been a devastating week in multiple ways. Yet, by the grace of God I was able to continue on with joy and thankfulness, and by the grace of God I was still able preach a worshipful sermon that Sunday on “Communion with the Triune God.” So, I hope with that in mind, these words will encourage and strengthen my fellow pastors in the midst of their own trials and struggles.
No Offense Is So Great As My Own Against God
In the midst of such a trial, I am immediately reminded that my own sin against God is infinitely worse than any person could possibly due to me. I am a debtor to grace. No offense has occurred to me which is nearly so treacherous as my own sin against God. So, as Paul said when everyone deserted him in 2 Timothy 4:16, so I say now, “May it not be charged against them!”
I am also reminded of “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” in Matthew 18:21-35. The debt I owed God is infinitely greater than the debt any man owes me. Since God has forgiven all of my innumerable debts, I have also forgiven my debtors. (Matthew 6:12) The key to not growing bitter is to remember that my own record of debt that stood against me with its legal demands has been cancelled and nailed to the cross. (Colossians 2:14) Therefore, I hold no man as owing me anything, lest God require a debt of me that I could never repay in all of eternity. When you think of God’s unmerited kindness and favor toward you, that God would have been perfectly just to require of you a complete payment for every last sin in word, thought, or deed—who could possibly demand repayment from his fellow servant? Such grace frees us from all bitterness.
It is because of such unfathomable grace in the midst of a life of suffering that Paul could say we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” (2 Corinthians 6:10) Such brokenhearted joy is necessary for our survival in a fallen world. As we read in Romans 5:3-5,
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
As I have watched other godly men suffer in the ministry, I have clearly seen God’s grace at work in their life as he is further strengthening them for the work that he has prepared in advance for them. I suppose it is now my turn to go through the crucible in order that I may be further refined by fire. May the sovereign Lord grant me grace, that his glory might be magnified in my life and ministry, even in the midst of such trials. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
Jesus the Church Planter: Where We Go Wrong
The other thing that is necessary to press on with joy is a right view of church planting and pastoral ministry. I often use words like “church plant” and “church planting.” The idea of “church planting” or being a “church planter” is very common. I use those phrases myself because it is the quickest and easiest way for people to know and understand what I’m talking about. However, these words are very misleading, and that has lead to some dangerous trends.
Pragmatism is the golden rule of church planting in almost every theological camp or church planting movement. It’s all about numbers. According to most church planting organizations and networks, you shouldn’t even plant until you have a solid “core group” of at least 40+ people, and of course, to be a “successful” church plant you must retain all of these people and substantially grow within a year or two. Naturally, with this pragmatic model, some of those members must be successful themselves in business and be good “tithers.” After all, you can’t plant a church without a decent sized budget, a building, an advertising and marketing strategy, etc, etc, etc.
This leads most church plants to fail in at least one of two ways:
First, people are retained at any cost. I have previously been a part of a church plant where the “pastor” affirmed a man as a genuine brother in Christ who openly denied justified by faith alone, penal substitutionary atonement, and the inspiration of Scripture. Yet, this man was not only welcomed to join the church, but was also allowed to be apart of childcare. I mean, who cares about doctrine. What really mattered is that he could pass an FBI background for childcare, and we need to retain this core group to be a successful church plant.
Second, church plants close their doors for all of the wrong reasons. One question I kept asking myself over the years as I thought about these things is, “How many people is enough to start a church plant? What is the magic number?” Subsequently I had to ask, “If this is my magic number, what happens if several people leave for whatever reason? Do I just quit because I no longer have my magic number in regular attendance or membership?” There is no biblical number for this. So, can God’s call to plant a church be determined by numbers? If so, who gets to define that magic number since it is not listed in Scripture? It really seemed to me that any number that was beyond me and my willing wife was dangerous. People leave churches all the time for all kinds of stupid and unbiblical reasons. If a pastor is faithful to shepherd the flock according to Scripture, and people leave for sinful reasons, does that now somehow mean that the church has failed? So, how can numbers determine God’s calling on a man to plant a church? Numbers are fickle things. Numbers do not determine truthfulness or faithfulness. So numbers should never determine when the doors of a church open or close.
Jesus the Church Planter: Defining the Church
It really comes down to the simple question: Who plants a church? Of course, to understand that we must first understand what a church is. If the church were merely a natural organization, a human institution like any other, than we would not need to ask such a question. The answer would be more obvious: “We plant churches” or possibly, “the men most skilled at organization and drawing a crowd plant churches.” However, if you think that is what a church is, you are grossly mistaken.
To put it simply: The church is a supernatural body of people who have been regenerated by the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit, and this universal supernatural body now gathers into local organized and biblically constituted bodies called churches.
So, no man can plant a church because it is not our work. God the Father eternally decreed who shall be saved from what nation in what point of history. God the Son came into this world and died for the elect, thus securing their salvation by his own blood. The Holy Spirit then sovereignly “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) and effectually calls men to repentance and faith through the washing of regeneration. Only God can plant a church. However, the Bible is even more specific…
Jesus the Church Planter: I Will Build My Church
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, “I will build my church.” That it. Jesus Christ alone plants churches. He is the only true “church planter.” Furthermore, he is not only the builder of the church, but he is also the foundation, the chief cornerstone upon which the whole structure is built.
So, what is our role, if any? Ephesians 4:11-12 says,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Christ does use human instruments to build his church, but it is still Christ who gives them for the building up of his Church. At best we are “Working together with him,” (2 Corinthians 6:1) but even then we must understand that “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” (Ephesians 5:23) Jesus does all of the designing, architecture, organizing, planning, resource gathering, and he does all of the heavy lifting. Jesus is the church planter, from first to last. We are simply given the great privilege of being used by Christ as he builds his church.
Once you understand what his work is, that Jesus Christ is the only true church planter, it gives you great comfort and rest in your own humble part in this work. What can I really do? I can “preach the word;” and “be ready in season and out of season.” I can “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) I can administer the sacraments, and I can do my upmost to organize things in accord with Scripture. As Paul Washer once said,
“How to plant a church: (1) Pray. (2) Do the work of an evangelist. (3) Disciple converts. (4) Train elders and deacons. (5) Accept suffering.”
It’s really that simple. The usual problem is that we don’t like that last part: “Accept suffering.” We are prone to assume that “if it is God’s will” for us to plant this or that church, it will all go smoothly and there will not be much suffering or difficulty. Therefore, we tend to lose heart and give up when we should accept suffering and persevere in our labors, holding fast to this one immutable truth: Jesus says, “I will build my church.”
My fellow pastors and “church planters,” we cannot regenerate anyone. We cannot bring men to repentance and faith. We cannot open blind eyes or soften hardened hearts. Nowhere in Scripture are pastors or church planters ever guaranteed that they will see such results during their lifetime. We are called to do what is literally impossible for us to do. All we are responsible for is to be faithful to the calling regardless of the results. We are currently living in times of spiritual decline and apostasy, so the plowing is going to be extra long and difficult. Yet, it is to this that we have been called, and God will be glorified by our humble efforts regardless of the numeric results. Be faithful to shepherd as many souls as are entrusted to you, even if it’s only one. This work is not for the effeminate or for people pleasers. This is man’s work. Let us be encouraged by Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 16:13 and press on in our labors with joy,
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”