Death of a Baptist Church and the Necessity of Church Discipline

In the last half of 2014 the power-hungry schismatics in our Baptist church successfully drove the pastor out of office and of the church by making his life and ministry untenable in his then present situation. He had no practical option but to resign; if he hadn’t the whole congregation would have been traumatised and damaged more seriously.  As it was, the congregation were shocked with the unexpected resignation and with a great sense of loss because they loved the pastor; he had faithfully preached the word and the gospel, and there were many tears shed following his announced resignation.  Many pleaded with him to reconsider but the die was cast and he couldn’t turn back.  As he said, if he hadn’t resigned then, he would have been sacked further down the track as the schismatics gained more traction; so, by his resigning now he was at least able to decide when it happened, rather than them.

Two years before this we, as a church, called this man to be our pastor.  Prior to his arrival, we had just been brought through a crisis by a Baptist interim pastor i.e. a man set apart to shepherd the congregation in the period between the previous pastor and the incoming one.  This interim pastor had a difficult job on his hands because the last three pastors had been forced to resign and there was still strife amongst the members.  He had agreed to minister for a period of eighteen months and to try and bring healing and unity to the congregation so that a healthy congregation could be handed over to the new pastor.

Wolves move in for the kill

However, unknown to us and the rest of the congregation, the wolves were already resisting him, the new pastor, because they found they couldn’t control him.  They had their agenda and knew what they wanted the pastor to do, but he had his own plan and direction for the church, as well he should, and wouldn’t be pressured.  So almost from Day One the pastor had a real problem on his hands and he was never able to get anything achieved.  About 18 months later at a “church family” meeting the sheepskins came off and the pastor was openly attacked and humiliated.  It was a planned operation and the pack leader was clinical and implacable as he carved up his opposition – the move had already been heralded at a previous church “family” meeting when this man ambushed the pastor and Management Committee with a deceptive ruse and he was able to implement a major part of his agenda by bypassing the church leadership, using the church’s constitution to gain his end – and this time the pastor was attacked from all sides of the floor as the pack bayed for his blood.

There were others in the congregation, lone wolves (Matt 7:15), who were also troublemakers but not allied with the larger pack, and they also took opportunity to cause havoc.  They were like a pack of dogs which, having smelt blood, move in for the kill.  The meeting degenerated disgracefully and shamefully and the pastor had to close it in order to stop further damage.  The Management Committee members (installed in place of elders and deacons by the interim pastor) were also attacked and vilified.  The so-called “church family” meetings that we had been to in this church had always been very unpleasant and we always came away from them feeling miserable and frustrated, but so far both the interim and present pastors had been able to maintain control.  But this one was something else, and the naked hostility was palpable and sickening.

The flock scattered

The impact on the congregation was enormous.  People were horrified and traumatised by what they had witnessed and many of the older people said they couldn’t take any more church meetings as it was too stressful, and they were concerned about the serious consequences for their health.  We all dreaded the next meeting because the wolves hadn’t finished yet and we knew that worse was to come.  And indeed, a few days before the next meeting, one of the lone wolves, a man who seemed to love conflict and who hijacked and disrupted every meeting, sent an email to everybody in the congregation in which he criticised the pastor and the Management Committee, and outlined what he was going to discuss at the meeting.

Following this, another of the lone wolves threatened two of the Management Team with “blood on the floor” (her words) at the next meeting and that the previous meeting would be tame compared to what was to come.  As Jesus puts it: The “hireling…..seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth; and the wolf catcheth them and scattereth the sheep” (Jn 10:12).

It was these overt threats combined with the already demonstrated and ever-present menace from the main wolf pack who wanted control of the church which persuaded the pastor that the only thing he could do to protect the congregation was to resign.  As a result of his resignation the Management Committee also resigned in support of him and in protest against what the schismatics and wolves were doing.  And those in the congregation who supported the pastor (more than half the congregation) also resigned and left the church; every capable and talented person who took any part in the running of the church had now resigned or simply walked out.

This mass exodus took the wolf pack by surprise; they thought that all they had to do was get rid of the pastor, and the church would continue as usual, and then they would keep trying for a pastor whom they could control.  But now the majority of the small group which remains are in the 70’s to 90’s age group, mainly women, and who can’t do anything except attend services and put their meagre financial offerings in the collection bag.  This is wonderfully ironic because prior to when the pack leader ambushed the congregational meeting to get his agenda implemented, he said he didn’t want any old people involved in what he wanted to do.

If we ignore our sin, it will go away

And now, some of the lone wolves have joined with the main pack and have moved into all the positions of leadership and responsibility because there is no-one else to fill the positions.  These schismatics now have the control they wanted but it is a hollow victory; there are no musicians, no bible study home group leaders, no pastoral visitation team, no income, and the architects and movers of the take-over have to do everything themselves. The church now has such a stinking reputation in our state that no pastor would take on the pastoral role there, even if the church could afford a pastor.

The sickening thing is that they are pietistically carrying on with “faith” and determination, “serving the Lord”, as they like to describe their attitude.  They need to bring in preachers from outside when they can get them, otherwise one of the leading wolves has to preach (something which he never envisaged); they have recorded music for their “worship”; and they have condensed the seating by removing chairs and bringing the rest to the front of the hall so that the place doesn’t look so empty.

A penalty-free zone

As if all this is not bad enough, Baptist church leaders from the Union who are trying to resolve their problems, will be simply sweeping it all under the carpet.  The wolf pack wants to “move forward”, as they put it, and there is talk of having some kind of “healing” service.  Nobody will need to give account and there will be no recriminations, no discipline, no-one will be held responsible.  It was declared by the interim pastor at the last meeting when they were trying to rally and keep what they have left, that the letters of resignation will not be read to the congregation, and there will be no reckoning, as this would be negative and “legalistic” and the church needs to move past all that.  And every single one of those involved in hounding the pastor out of the church deny any responsibility or wrongdoing whatsoever; indeed, they have put the entire blame on the pastor’s shoulders.

So – biblical church discipline and repentance are legalistic.  Is this the official Baptist position?  I don’t know, but I haven’t heard of anyone from the Union trying to correct this idea.

I’d like to be able to say that this is not a common occurrence, but I can’t.  It’s a sad fact that being a Baptist pastor is one of the most thankless and insecure jobs in the country, and many good men have been all but destroyed by their congregations, so burned that they have left the pastoral ministry altogether and gone back to a secular occupation.  Unfortunately, some of these good men have difficulty finding a job due to their being out of the secular workforce for such a long time.

Sour grapes?

I should also say at this point that I’m writing this, not because of sour grapes but because it needs to be said.  I learned some valuable lessons from the tragedy unfolded here, and I hope that some readers will be helped by what I learned.  If I only write in order to carry out some kind of vendetta, then my motive is unworthy of a Christian and of Christ and he will not bless anything I’ve done.  I must admit though that I am angry at what the wolves have done; they stole a church, both from Christ and from his faithful people.  I’m angry that they’ve trampled everything worthy and godly under the pretext that they want to preach the gospel.  The truth is that the gospel was being preached, Gods’ people were being ministered to, and the church was functioning as a church should – and now there is just a travesty of a church.  I can honestly say that I desire the wolves will be granted repentance; some of them were my friends and we were in the same bible study home group.  They’ve convinced themselves and each other that they’re serving the Lord, but they are still wolves among the sheep and must be resisted.  I did try to reason with them and I have prayed for them but I’ve been ignored by some and fobbed off by others.  I also wrote to the Baptist Union of NSW but was likewise ignored.

And I pray for the people who are left there.  None of them asked for this or wanted it.  They’re not happy with the situation and even now some would like to leave but they’re too old, and such a move is too daunting for them.

Some consequences…..

The pastor’s suffering

The first is the shameful way the pastor was treated.  This man responded to our call in good faith, trusting us as Christians and a Christian church.  He uprooted his home and moved to our town.  He left many good friends behind and took up a new life among strangers.  This is, of course, what pastors often do when they take on a new ministry.  The difference is that this man was lured here and betrayed, unable to go back and take up where he left off, and left with an uncertain future.  After coming here, he took on some new financial obligations which he found necessary to do by coming here and, once he was no longer pastor, he had no income and was consequently put under financial pressure.  He also had to find somewhere else to live as he was renting his home from a church member; and he had to find a new job.

To the pastor’s credit he never questioned God or his call to the ministry; he knows he is not guilty of the calumnies of which the wolves accuse him; he knows who he is in Christ and has moved forward without doubting.  His only concern has been that those who forced him out of this pastorate might stand in his way of another.

It would be understandable if he or any other pastor in a similar situation would do a lot of soul searching – was he really called by God in coming to our church?  Was he really called to the ministry?  Was he a failure as a pastor and had he failed the congregation?

The name of Christ

Another consequence is that the name of Christ has been tarnished in our region, as well as the Baptist reputation.  Christ’s enemies have been given cause to gloat by what happened, and the churches in our region have all heard about the ructions in the Baptist church.  And not only have the local churches heard about it, the whole of the state in Baptist circles knows; our church has had a bad reputation for a long while, but this latest debacle has shredded any doubts that some may have had, and now no Baptist pastor would touch the place.  In fact, the students at the Baptist theological college have dubbed this Baptist church “Purgatory” because of its shocking history.  Another irony is that the lone wolf who loved opposing everything the leadership did at every meeting is now opposing the current “leadership”.  Well, they have the leadership they deserve.

…..and some lessons I’ve learned

The role of pastor in the church

The first thing that should be said is that pastors are one of Jesus’ gifts to the church; along with other offices, he gave “…..pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).  This is a high and holy calling, but the wolves in this Baptist church regard him merely as an employee, hired to do the bidding of the congregation.  In this church, he has less respect and dignity than an employee in a secular business, and they think they can cast him off as and when they please without reference to legal requirements for employers set in place by the government, or consideration for his needs or his dignity.  This is the evil fruit of unbiblical Baptist ecclesiology, a system which sees the church as a democracy.

But Christ does not see the pastor or any other people who take a leadership role in his body in this way.  Rather, he protects him and requires those under the pastor’s leadership to submit to him.  “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation (way of life).…..Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable to you” (Heb 13:7, 17).

The responsibility of the Christian in the church

If there has been a successful revolt within the body and the pastor has been forced out, and there is no likelihood of regaining control, you need to leave that church.  If an unsuccessful attempt has been made, the perpetrators need to be disciplined and either brought to repentance or excommunicated from the body.  This sin cannot be swept under the carpet as it has been in the Baptist church under consideration in this paper.

“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.  For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom 16:17-18).

Further, Christians are urged to deal with one another in love.  The following is just one of many passages from the bible which urge this: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.  And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:12-16).

If the schismatics in the church had been governed by scriptures such as this instead of using the church constitution to gain their ends, and the church meetings as a platform to vent their spleen, the church would still be whole, the pastor would still be there, the wolves would have peacefully gotten what they wanted anyway, and the church would have a mission.  As it is however, I fear that Christ has removed his lamp stand from them (Rev 2:5).

Elders – government in the body of Christ

When the apostle Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles, he established certain rules for the churches.  Concerning how they were to be ruled he said that it was to be by elders, or presbyters.  Elders were already in these positions of leadership as we can see in Acts 15:2, 6; and Peter himself was an elder (1 Pet 5:1-3).  As there are no longer apostles in the Church, the elders now have sole authority to rule.

So when Paul wrote to Titus he instructed him to ordain elders in every church: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5).  Following that instruction, he outlined the qualities and characteristics essential for those in such a role.  These qualifications are also found in his pastoral letter to Timothy with some extra information e.g. elders have a ruling role (3:4-5 cf 5:17).

As a Presbyterian, I believe that there are elders which focus on ruling and elders which focus on teaching, but they each do both: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17).  And I also believe that elders, both teaching and ruling, are equal in authority.  Therefore, a pastor, as an elder, is a ruler in the church, and he does so with the authority of Jesus Christ.  And a ruler, by definition, rules.  He is not an employee of any church; yes, he receives his stipend from the church, and that is his right according to scripture: “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.  And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (1 Tim 5:18).  But he is called to lead the church, to rule them and to teach them.  Of course, he is not untouchable and he does have to be accountable to the other elders, hence the necessity of multiple elders in any congregation.  He is also a servant, under Christ, to the church.  A worthy pastor knows how to both rule and serve.

Deacons – servants in the body of Christ

Paul also gave instructions for deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13).  There is no mention of them having authority to rule in the church, but they are honoured.  The role of deacon was established in Acts 6:1-8, and their role was that of service to the church members and the congregation; the very name “deacon” (diakonos) means servant.  As they were called for by the elders they were subordinate to the elders; the elders instructed the congregation to choose suitable men for the role, then the elders would consecrate them for the work (Acts 6:1-4).  This act of consecration, given them by the elders, gave the deacons their authority to serve in the church; but without such authority received from the elders, any act of service was unofficial.

The mystery of Baptist church polity

I am always amazed at Baptist church polity.  It baffles me why they have deacons as rulers in the church when scripture so clearly says that elders are those who rule in the church. The whole Baptist system, i.e. church democracy, is wrong, and is no defence for the church, but I never thought about it much.  However, the shocking way the schismatics ruthlessly stole our church opened my eyes and I received a rude awakening.  We neglect right doctrine at our peril.  If the church had had a correct theology of elders and deacons, and if they had had elders who ruled the church, (the interim pastor had stood down elders and deacons and replaced them with a Management Committee) we might not have gone down so easily.  Although on reflection I even doubt that because the wolves were intent on achieving their two goals, which were to set up their “evangelistic” programme and to get rid of the pastor; and they showed nothing but contempt for the Management Committee and would allow nothing to stand in their way.  And if they could cast aside biblical principles so easily, the God-given authority of elders would mean nothing to them.

During the death throes of our church we heard several reports of other Baptist pastors who had suffered the loss of their ministry in the same way, and they had all gone back to secular work.  This is a tragedy and a disgrace!  But what can we expect when we do things our way instead of Jesus’ way?  There are a lot of lovely Christians in Baptist churches who love the Lord and serve him to the best of their ability; but their ecclesiology carries the seeds of destruction within itself and, in my experience at least, almost always leads to the division of the church.

The peril of not administering church discipline

The interim pastor said that to discipline anyone involved in the church split would be legalistic, and he just wanted the church to move forward.  In doing so he ensured the destruction of the church and lost a wonderful opportunity to bring healing to a church which had been sick and in bondage to wolves for decades.  Had he instituted proceedings for discipline and brought the perpetrators of the schism to repentance or justice, he would at one stroke have brought healing to the church by removing the problem (i.e. the troublemakers), and most of those who had departed would have returned.

He has also done a huge disservice to the perpetrators; their sin has been swept under the carpet, consequently they will continue in their sin unaware of their great danger, and must face God’s judgment.  A pastor I once knew was fond of quoting “soft surgeons make stinking wounds”.

The aim of discipline is twofold:

  • That the church be purged of sin and maintain a godly life and witness (1 Cor 5:6-7). If sin remains the church is finished; if the church doesn’t destroy itself, Christ will remove his lamp stand from it anyway and the end will be the same.
  • The recovery of the sinner (1 Cor 5:5). As with all godly discipline, it is discipline, it is punishment (2 Cor 2:6 – “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many”; and see Heb 12:5-11.  It is also redemption: “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5).

So with this in mind, the Apostle Paul urges the Corinthians to chasten the incestuous man and excommunicate him with the aim of his restoration to fellowship with Christ and with the church.  And what was the result?  The man repented and was restored, just as the discipline was intended to do.  In fact, Paul had to urge the church not to make him suffer longer than necessary: “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.  So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.  Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him” (2 Cor 2:6-8).

What a picture, and what instruction!  These two passages (1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2 combined with Hebrews 12) show us that discipline, essential as it is, not only can be administered in love but must be – it must be administered when necessary, and it must be administered in love.

Sadly, the few remaining in this Baptist church don’t understand church discipline, so they have misplaced loyalties.  They don’t want to abandon the church in its need, and they don’t want the Baptist witness in the community to be extinguished.  Thus, they abandon Christ instead, though they don’t realise it, by working with the wolves and helping them “rebuild” the church.  The Christian’s loyalty is always to Christ first; no other loyalty can come anywhere near this.  And if being loyal and faithful to him means difficulty for us, then so be it; he is no man’s debtor and he will defend us and provide for us.  What good is a church which has long-standing sin, not repented of and ignored by leaders, and in disobedience to Christ?  Does he need such a church?  Is it so hard to find followers that he’ll make do with even such a church as this?  Doesn’t he rather want and use faithful Christians in faithful churches?  Therefore, instead of withdrawing their support and letting the whole thing come down around the ears of the schismatics, these dear but misguided people are propping up a rotten carcass.

Update 2018

Since the events in 2014 occurred, this Baptist church has run out another two men consecutively who were asked to be pastor.  In an ironic twist, one of these pastors was one of the architects who conspired and worked to remove the pastor who is the subject of this article.  He is now feeling sorry for himself, saying that he was very hurt by the way he has been treated, and is looking for another church to attend.

There is now another man who has been called to be the pastor; it’s only a matter of time before he, too, is forced to resign.  As long as the wolves in control of the church remain, nothing will change – nothing can change.

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