Transition is a vital concept and essential for extending effectiveness in ministry. Many Grace churches have stumbled due to poor preparation for a time of transition. Phil Congdon, a seasoned pastor and gifted teacher, has been preparing himself and others to make sure that when transition of leadership occurs, there is a solid and steady grip on the doctrine of grace that continues into the next generation. Listen to his heart and hear his insights as to how to bulletproof the doctrine of grace in the midst of change of leadership.
How to Avoid Theological ‘Bracket Creep’
Since the birth of the ‘first church’ in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, a tragic regression has repeatedly taken place in local churches. It happened in every New Testament church, and it has afflicted churches down through the centuries. It’s what I am calling theological ‘bracket creep’ – the progressive loss of doctrinal clarity which inevitably leads to stunted spiritual growth, confusion over fundamentals of the faith, and a loss of evangelistic fervor. Corinth, Colossae, Philippi, Crete, the Galatian churches Paul planted on his first missionary journey, and the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, all show the symptoms of this disease.
The apostles, and church leaders ever since, have grieved as they watched churches which they planted and nurtured through years of initial growth, reach maturity, and depart from the foundational teaching which guided them at the first. Many pastors have wanted to say something similar to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians: You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…? . . . You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Gal. 3.1; 5.7). Paul knew such times would come. He warned Timothy concerning those he was shepherding,
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4.3-4).
I wish it were possible to absolutely guarantee that a local church would never stray from the faith. If this were possible, I’m sure the New Testament writers would have given us the formula! Sadly, as churches move from one ‘generation’ to the next—as the key leaders (particularly pastors, elders, or other teachers) change—there is often a slippage in commitment to the foundational truths which strengthened and united the flock. There is no guarantee that a local church will hold to biblical truth trans-generationally (transitions in pastoral leadership).
In particular, as Paul found in Galatia, churches seem to lose their appreciation for and commitment to grace. Sometimes, pastors begin their ministry holding to grace, but become more ambivalent and end up lacking conviction. This is why Paul exhorted Timothy to retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me…Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you (2 Timothy 1.13-14). But more often, a new pastor introduces a much different point of doctrine. That is, while his beliefs are in the same ‘ballpark’ as the previous pastor, his ‘center-point’ is not. Grace compromised is grace lost! How can a church avoid or limit doctrinal attrition—especially a loss of commitment to grace—after a pastor leaves? Here are some ways a pastor or church leader can prevent theological ‘bracket creep’.
- Preach sermons which communicate ‘grace truth’—such as the offer of eternal life to all who believe; faith is not a gift God gives to the elect, but is the persuasion that the gospel message is true; good works have no part in gaining or retaining eternal life; assurance of salvation is based on the finished work of Christ, not on our behavior; and a person who believes in Jesus is secure and can never lose their eternal life.
- Carefully and prayerfully pursue staff members who understand and appreciate grace. Some will gradually embrace grace through consistent biblical teaching. Seek to put those most responsive to grace (see #4 below) into strategic leadership and teaching roles. When adding new vocational staff, make grace a central issue! And beware: Most theologically trained people today (even those who are ‘Reformed’ or ‘Lordship’) know and speak the ‘language of grace’—so be particularly strident in this area.
- Intentionally seek to support missions and ministries that explicitly affirm their belief in grace. The more you associate with these ministries, the stronger your foundation will be, and the more resistant you will be to ‘grace erosion’. We are all stronger when we ‘network’ together. If you are affiliated with a church denomination that is unclear on grace, seek to change it from within, or leave it. Establish a reciprocal relationship with Bible colleges and seminaries which unapologetically stand for grace; support them financially, send students to them, and look to them for potential vocational leaders.
- Practice intentional discipleship to build ‘grace-awareness’, and alertness to any encroachment of Reformed Calvinism, Arminianism, or Lordship teaching. At the outset, this may involve identifying a core group of spiritual ‘yuppies’ (upwardly mobile Christians), and walking them through a series of books which progressively expose them to grace truths. In time, you can ‘turn them loose’ to lead groups of their own.
- Prepare church elders so they will be alert to ways legalism and theological error infects the church. This often arises from within the body, even the leadership (see Acts 20.28-31)! Be especially wary of ‘soft’ emergent church movements which minimize doctrine, or ‘missional church’ ideas which saddle Christians with a ‘new legalism.’
- Make evangelism a priority! Nothing sharpens an appreciation for grace, and blunts legalism, like sharing the Good News! Warning: This may be the most difficult thing you do. People are too ready to ‘let the professionals’ do evangelism. Often the message gets muddled by ‘Lordship’ additions. The key here is to engage as many in actual evangelism as possible. The experience is ‘addicting,’ and leading someone to Christ is exhilarating. People who lead others to Christ have an inbuilt resistance to a graceless gospel.
- Pray, and recruit others to pray with you. Pray specifically for the Spirit to guard and protect the leaders of the church, and to spread a spirit of graciousness, which is the strongest antidote to any intrusion of legalism. Pray for those who are doctrinally clear to graciously give others time to ‘grow in grace,’ and not bludgeon them with it! Pray that all will resist spiritual pride and instead attract others with grace.
These are good words. What are you doing in your role of leadership as a pastor or a para-church leader to be a “keeper of the spring”
Until He comes for us,
Fred Chay, PhD
Grace Theology Press