Sometime back, I had a pastor write me and ask that I address this issue. Even though I have sadly dealt with this on more than one occasion, I tremble to communicate in any way that I have all the answers on this matter. Nevertheless, it is a reality and it is especially so for anyone who goes to pastor an established church whose previous patterns of taking in members were less than healthy and biblical. So, here are a few “suggestions” as you wrestle with this all important and very difficult issue in your church.
Recognize you are not God. Make sure you start here. It is common to jump quickly into conclusion about a church member’s spiritual state based on his disapproval of you and your vision for the church. It is often times not that simple. We are not all-wise and omniscient (knowing all things). Therefore, if you begin to evaluate and despairingly conclude spiritual blindness about someone in your church without fear and trembling in your own heart to do so knowing you are not God…do not proceed until you come to accept those limitations.
Know we have ways of examining the spiritual state of our people. Although we are not God, a common default position in broader evangelicalism is to conclude we are unable to evaluate a person’s spiritual state. Yet, Scripture gives us plenty of observable realties we should see in one another in the church to affirm we actually belong to Christ. Is this person bearing spiritual fruit? Do they love Christ, His Word, and His people? Is there a hatred of their sin? Is there a desire to share the gospel? Is there a longing for the things of God? Is there a desire to learn and grow? Whether it is a current member or someone who comes under your watch, we are called to be watching our “life and doctrine” and a complete disregard for these things in a church member’s life should at least cause concern for them, regardless the position and power they hold in the church.
Consider whether you have something personal against the individual that would sway your judgment. An easy trap for any pastor to fall into is to evaluate a person’s spiritual state on the basis of that person’s affirmation of your ministry, or lack there of. To conclude a 75-year-old long time church member old enough to be your grandpa is unconverted because he doesn’t like your preaching and he may place too much focus on how many people are at church (or not at church), is reckless and a pre-mature judgment on your part. Evaluate your own heart first, before evaluating others to avoid making a judgment on hurt feelings and a bruised ego, not biblically objective evidence. This scenario may simply reveal the need for you as a pastor to patiently pursue that older member and show a loving concern for him and his soul.
Don’t act alone. Because our single judgment can be swayed by a lack of support or conflict with certain people in our church, we MUST have others around us who know these same people as well as we do who can objectively evaluate also. This is one of the many benefits of having a plurality of pastors/elders in your church. However, if you do not have other pastors in your midst, involve other godly men who know you and the person in question to help confirm whether your concern for a certain church member’s spiritual state is valid.
If you and others in the church have strong concerns about the spiritual state of a church member, as the appoint shepherds you have the responsiblity to inquire and pursue that individual and find a way to communicate your concern for their soul. “That process” would need to be a different post. My hope with this post is that you would make sure your evaluation process is thoughtful, deliberate, patient and with others, for if there is one area I don’t want to be quick and careless about…it is this one.