The word of God is clear that the role and duties of elders in a local church is a tough role. Elders are charged by God with faithfully handling his word, with shepherding the flock, and with caring for souls. Pastors (elders are the same as pastors) are called to pray for the church, to correct the doctrine of those who stray, to call people back from sin, to comfort the hurting, and so very much more. And all of that is while regularly preaching and studying—and perhaps even writing on a regular basis in the modern world.
I would not give away my job for anything. I love the role to which God has called me, even though it can surely be hard. I love to teach the word of God and care for the people of God. And I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do this work well.
With the pastor’s job in mind, let me share with you an issue that pastors face that I think could be something all church members need to hear about. I have come across something that is necessary in the church, but which I think many Christians shrug off. If you need a prooftext verse for what I’m going to suggest, try this one from Hebrews:
Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
This verse of Scripture calls for church members to do their best to make shepherding them easy for pastors. This is by no means a verse that allows pastors to lord authority over people in the body. It is not the Bible saying that, if the pastor wants you to fund a new building, you whip out the checkbook without hesitation. It is simply a reminder that, because your pastors keep watch over your soul, you should help them do their jobs well, with as little pain as possible.
So, what do you do when your pastor holds to a doctrine with which you are struggling or with which you disagree? I would like to suggest, as a pastor and as a student of the Bible, that you have the respect for and love for your pastor to actually talk with him about your struggle. It is wise for church members who are trying to work out their beliefs, or who are even struggling with what the pastor teaches, to actually sit down with the pastor, hear his rationale for his argument, and see what can be done. It is possible that this discussion will sharpen or even change one or both of the people in the discussion.
I have seen a church member call up his pastor, ask for time, and then sit down to talk through a challenging and often-debated doctrinal issue. The young man came with his argument ready, but he also came with grace and humility. The conversation did not end with anyone’s mind totally changed, but the conversation certainly ended in fellowship, in love, and with both sides understanding each other better. This was good.
On the other hand, there are those in churches who disagree with their pastor doctrinally who simply make the decision that they will figure out the issue on their own without ever sitting down with their pastor to talk it through. As a pastor, let me simply say that this is a discouraging decision at the least. Pastors are surely not better than anyone else in the church. But pastors have, by the grace of God, often been given the privilege of years of study in which to wrestle through tough doctrines. To simply refuse to talk with your pastor about a doctrine may communicate to your pastor that his years of study mean nothing to you, and that you, in a few months on your own, will do a better job of figuring out a thorny theological problem. It can come across as a person saying that they will trust an author or a speaker from the Internet more than they will trust the wisdom of one who is in their own church.
The sad thing is, we will sometimes see that church members who do not talk doctrine through with a pastor may bring about division in the body because of their conclusions. They may leave the church. Or they may bring about a major conflict in the church. And often, these conflicts bring great sorrow to the body. All the while, had the person chosen to sit down with their leadership, the pastors the members said they would submit to, they could have avoided a great deal of the pain of the process.
Of course, I do not believe that every church member will agree with his or her pastor on every issue. In truth, I need to be challenged and corrected, and so do all other pastors. Which is why, for a church member to decide that nothing would change from a conversation is counterproductive in the body. Perhaps the pastor will learn something. Perhaps the church member who has his or her mind made up might actually find out that the pastor can lovingly present a truth to them that they had not yet understood. But to not give your pastor the opportunity for this, that is certainly not helping him to keep watch over your soul.
As always, thinking an issue like this through requires wisdom. I am not asking that one brings every petty preference issue to the pastor’s study for a four-hour discussion. There are surely doctrines that are of lesser importance, doctrines that will not demand division or policy changes in the church. Such doctrines do not always have to be addressed. But, then again, why not at least have a single conversation with your leaders about such issues if you are noticing them. No, do not become a thorn in your pastor’s side. But neither disrespect your leadership by assuming that they are wrong and they can say nothing that might influence you.
Also, we understand that not every person leaves a church over doctrine. People may desire to worship in a different setting or to serve a body they find fits them better. There are surely good and godly reasons to leave a church that do not require a doctrinal division.
Hebrews 13:17 commands us to help our shepherds shepherd our souls. Think along those lines as you think about tough doctrines you struggle with or doctrinal disagreements you have with your church. Perhaps thinking this way will help you to love your shepherds enough to talk with them about your struggles. Such conversations, if handled with love and grace, would glorify God and be good for all the souls involved.
What do you do, then, if you have a pastor who is not interested in doctrinal conversation? I have been in such a church in the past, and it was a really hard place to be. When you find out that your pastor is not interested in theology, or that he will not have a conversation about theology, then you may well need to consider another place to serve the Lord. But give the pastor the chance first. Respect him enough to speak with him. Make sure he knows what you are thinking and why you think it is important. Then, if you need to move on, if you have heard his thoughts on your doctrinal issue, you can go with a clear conscience, knowing that you have tried to be led by the shepherd the Lord placed over you.