By David Shiflet
As elders of two autonomous reformed Baptist churches (Grace Family Baptist Church Spring & Grace Family Baptist Church Conroe), we’re very excited about one of the most tangible expressions of both our associational unity and also our shared commitment to the Great Commission, church planting. Our unified prayer is that the Lord of the harvest, the vine-dresser, will raise men up to labor faithfully in the fields He has prepared. In accordance with this vision, we have established the Grace Family Institute (GFI) for the purpose of training and equipping men for the work of Gospel ministry.
At the time of this writing, we are in our fourth year of providing instruction; and the most frequently asked question we receive when we explain the vision for the program goes something like this: “I’m not a member of GfBC, but can I come to the classes?” or “Can you send me the book list so I can read along with your men?”. The answer to both questions is no. “Why not?” Shouldn’t we be eager to see as many man trained as possible? We allow only members of either Grace family Baptist Church or GfBC Conroe to participate in the Institute. Our “no” to members of other churches comes after careful reflection, and our answer is based on consideration of at least four issues: 1) the goals of our association and the Institute, 2) the jurisdiction of the local church, 3) our pedagogical philosophy and 4) stewardship of that which the Lord has provided us.
First and foremost, no one can fully understand why GFI exists unless he understands what we believe to be one of the primary expressions of the Great Commission: planting new churches. One of the chief aims of the Grace Network is to cooperate together in the planting of churches. The primary goal of GFI flows from that focus: to train and equip those men that the Holy Spirit has called and gifted for gospel ministry (Acts 20:28). We want to prepare these men in sound theology that results in practical competence (2 Tim. 2:1), while encouraging them to be faithful to their primary responsibilities at home (1 Tim. 3:4-5). ‘Right’, comes the objection, ‘but how does that explain why I can’t participate as a non-member of GfBC?’ We believe that the clear Biblical pattern is for churches to plant churches, not self-directed individuals (2 Cor. 10:18). We seek to train men that we–as individual churches–can send out. (Acts 8:14, 14:23,15:22; 1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:5). That simply cannot happen with a member of a church unaffiliated with us. Simply having a church entrust a man to our instruction does not assure that the man will receive the kind of inquiry and examination in his local church that is required by Scripture.
This brings us to the second issue, jurisdiction. This is an often neglected but key issue. The Lord has placed the responsibility of confirming the qualifications of church officers exclusively on the local church. Churches cannot outsource this function, and we must not encourage the practice. Too often, individuals and churches think in ways more similar to the world than Scripture on this issue (Rom. 12:2). The world looks to outside entities to “certify” or “license” experts for various fields. This is not God’s plan for the church. As we consider the qualifications for elder found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, how can a man’s character and skills be evaluated in the comprehensive manner required other than in the context his local church? Our confession of faith, the Second London Baptist Confession states it this way:
The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein. (SLBC, 26:8, emphasis added)
A prospective elder must be well known by a local body of Christ whose elders can fully affirm his gifts, his character and the outward manifestation of his internal call. In no way does this stance impugn the validity of seminaries; those institutions can provide a valuable service to a body of Christ if the sending church is faithful to her responsibility. Just as a father or mother may call on the particular skills of others in educating their children, they may not transfer the responsibility that God has given them. We are very wary of the temptation for any formalized theological training to usurp the authority given exclusively to the local church. We violate the jurisdiction of another local church if the GFI becomes a proving ground for elder candidates from another church.
Another way in which we seek to honor the jurisdictional boundaries of local churches is by ensuring we are not teaching something different from the practice of another church. The authority of each local church is real, and it flows directly from the Chief Shepherd. Our confession makes this clear:
As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ. (SLBC, 26:12, emphasis added)
We must be careful not to spoil the diet of another flock–even inadvertently–by feeding sheep who are not our own. In an associational context, however, we can work effectively as elders among the churches to buttress the bulwark of sacred duty in the local church of identifying and training men that God has called. The bonds of peace in the greater body of Christ are important to our ministry and our testimony. The Glory of God in the unity of His people should be a primary concern of all churches (Rom. 15:5-6).
A third issue, our pedagogical philosophy, is related to the first two issues of the goals of GFI and the jurisdiction of the Institute. We believe the kind of instruction necessary for shepherding the Church of Jesus Christ is best taught in a hand’s-on manner, immersing a man not only in theological instruction, but also in the ministry model that flows from that theology. It’s not enough to know what a plow looks like; men must know the smell of the soil and the satisfying sting of blistered hands. Our desire is to plant distinctively reformed Baptist churches that hold to the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. And our theology also leads us to the conviction that the normal pattern for the church under both the old and new covenants is for all ages to be instructed and to worship together. Parents–and especially fathers–have the primary duty to disciple their own children, being equipped in that role by the church. We believe new church plants ought to follow that same pattern, unless extraordinary or temporary circumstances necessitate a different approach. A man who desires to be an elder must experimentally comprehend the historic theology of the church and how it’s applied in a particular local church. It’s not enough for his mind to play the cartographer, making maps for future ministry. He must daily test his footing on perilous pathways, learning to point others to the safety of a road he has himself traveled. A man attending from another church that is not applying ministry in the same manner will not receive the full advantage of Grace Family Institute.
A fourth reason that we restrict enrollment in GFI to churches formally in association with GfBC is a matter of stewardship. We simply have limited resources, both in physical means and especially in the time of our instructors. We must focus on those whom God has already placed before us, “…[we] will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us…” (2 Cor 10:13 ESV). Because of our commitment to the goal of GFI to prepare men for church planting, we simply must concentrate the majority of our attention on the effort of training men from our associational churches. We’re careful not to dilute the instruction for those men that God has providentially placed in our midst. We fervently believe that since Christ promised that He will build His church (Matt. 16:18), then it follows that the Spirit of the Living God will raise up men from among us to tend to new vines. New growth in our own field must not be stunted due to lack of water while we journey far and wide surveying other fields (1 Tim. 5:8).
We’re praying that the Lord would expand the ministry of training men for planting new churches and shepherding the people of God. And we believe the most effective way for that growth to take place is in the context of local churches joining together, in full agreement of both doctrine and practice. These churches need full accord on the goals of the training, jurisdictional duties, philosophy of instruction and stewardship of the resources Christ has provided each respective church. These associated churches will then be able to labor together for the training of men that the respective churches could then send the appointed laborers to fields made white for harvest by our Lord.
David Shiflet is the Pastor of Preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church of Conroe, Tx and is the current Chairman of the Board for the Grace Family Network.