By Joel Rainey
Nearly two decades ago, a pastor was sitting in a meeting of other pastors who were considering the sponsorship of a new church. The local Baptist Association had called this meeting to discuss “concerns” several of the pastors had relative to this new church proposal.
Church planting wasn’t nearly as “cool” back then as it is now. In fact, it was held in high suspicion in several segments of the denomination. In particular, these guys were concerned about the theology, evangelistic philosophy, and methods of this young church planter.
In their eyes, he was too close to the “wrong kind of people.”
Before long, the meeting turned caustic, with accusations of heresy and being “unBaptistic” being leveled at a young guy who wasn’t in the room to defend himself.
That young guy was me.
A Phone Call
After hearing several very negative comments about me, the pastor obtained my phone number and called me directly. Over the next several months, we got to know each other and he came to understand who I really was and what I wanted to see accomplished through planting new churches.
He ultimately became a fan, and later on, a very dear friend. Two years after this, our new church had the opportunity to play a small role in helping him start a new church.
Such was the Kingdom advance that resulted from the decision to make a single phone call and actually get to know someone. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen more often.
A Tired Refrain
Nearly twenty years later, I’ve led an association and helped lead a state convention. And in that labor I’ve often found myself working with pastors and seeking to bring the churches they lead to greater cooperation.
However, I spent more time than I wanted during those years trying to de-fuse misconceptions, get past misunderstandings, and move toward the commonalities I know are present for us to be on mission together.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience facilitating missions for men I believe to be among some of the best pastors in the SBC. But even in an area like ours, the propensity existed to hold fellow pastors in suspicion, merely on the word from a third party, and without talking to them directly.
We who dare to pastor churches should know better
We preach from a Bible that clearly instructs us to refrain from making judgments on fallacious grounds. We serve a Lord who was crucified precisely because of the same kind of rumor-mongering, slander, and character assassination that, regrettably, some in pastoral leadership sometimes commit without thinking.
This scenario happens every time we say of one of our fellow pastors, “I heard he’s a Calvinist! He must not believe in sharing Jesus,” or “With the way his church is growing, he MUST be compromising something!” or “I’m not so sure he’s one of us.'”
It continues with the assignment of motive without any basis in reality.
If a pastor employs a church growth tactic we don’t agree with, we assume he’s “all about the numbers.” If he hosts a Super Bowl party on a Sunday night, we assume he’s “bowing to the idol of professional football.”
If he engages a segment of his culture in a way we think goes too far, we declare that he has “sold out.” And if he expresses political opinions that depart from known orthodoxy—heaven help him! Because his fellow pastors certainly won’t!
When such claims are thoughtlessly made without so much as a shred of evidence, or without actually trying to get to know someone, those actions say more about us than those we are accusing.
To be sure, putting someone else down often makes us appear better, more holy, and closer to God in our own minds, but it does nothing to help the reputation of our Lord Jesus or the advance of His Kingdom.
Making matters worse
Too many pastors don’t go right to the source and rely on so-called “discernment ministries,” organizations who make it their life’s work to destroy the ministry of anyone they deem heretical.
The funny thing is that many of these “ministries” are themselves guilty of malpractice since the overwhelming majority are not directly accountable to any local church. That should tell you pretty much everything you need to know.
Pastors have the intelligence and ability to seek out accurate answers about a fellow pastor simply by reading the original source material. When it comes to the “big name” guys, make sure you’ve read their books before you say anything publicly so that whatever you say will be said with accuracy.
Oh, and when it comes to the pastor across town, the solution is easier still. Don’t say a word about him from your pulpit until you’ve sat down with him personally.
Crying Wolf too Often
I’m not suggesting pastors should not warn their people when they believe false teaching is present. Paul warned us wolves abound who look like sheep, and part of our role includes the protection of our flocks.
But I am suggesting that our current practice of third-party sources and hearsay means we “cry wolf” way too often. As we do, we lose the respect and attention of our people, which opens them up to REAL attacks from REAL false prophets.
Looking back on my experiences with that association in planting my first church, I’m thankful for what God allowed me to experience. Prior to those scars, I was just as likely to assume the worst, especially when it came to people who were not from “my tribe.”
In many ways, my willingness to reach out to marginalized and misunderstood peoples today is due to that experience. It gave me a motivation to make correct and accurate judgments, one person at a time.
A Band of Brothers
We are not politicians in competition with one another for the “party nomination.” We’re a band of brothers on the same side of the battlefield. We need to ensure that, in the midst of all the casualties that already result from the degree of spiritual battle in which we’re involved, “friendly fire” isn’t the cause of those casualties.
We rightly lament the rampant gossip, backbiting, slander, and character assassination that so often takes place in our churches. We wonder how on earth people who are supposed to know and walk with Jesus can act in such ways.
Gentlemen, the sad truth is that many times, they act in such ways because they’re following our example! We need to set a better one!
The pastorate needs more good men like the guy who picked up the phone to call me that day. The church needs its leadership to commit to discernment guided by actually getting to know other people.
Stopping this kind of ungodly behavior in our churches begins with us.
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is the Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is the author of three books with a fourth one due out this fall. Joel blogs at Themelios.