The Caner Event at FBC Woodstock Points to a Deeper Ecclesiological Problem in SBC Churches
By now, most anyone who follows the Ergun Caner saga has heard about the situation that occurred at FBC Woodstock on July 27th, 2014. It was a sad ending to the announcement back in May that Johnny Hunt would be having Caner preach in his pulpit. This came as a shock to many of us who held Dr. Hunt in high esteem. It came as no real surprise that Pastor Hunt had been silent on the Caner situation; he simply followed the path of many pastors in the SBC who have no stomach for calling Caner to repentance or are unwilling to even take five minutes to investigate the facts about Caner’s lengthy trail of lies and deception. What was stunning was that Johnny would choose to promote Caner back to a level of prominence that he hasn’t seen since his fall from Liberty University
My ultimate concern is not that Dr. Hunt would be willing to restore a brother who has fallen. Galatians 6 makes it very clear that we should gently restore those who have been “caught in any transgression,” and to do so in a spirit of humility knowing that we too are susceptible to temptation. However, this assumes a full confession of sin and complete repentance. Not only has Caner never repented, he has boldly claimed that he has done nothing that even requires repentance. Recently he declared, in public forums and on multiple occasions, that he has been “exonerated” of all charges. His followers and defenders attack and malign anyone who put forth the evidence of his decade of lies and deception. Their claim is never that Caner has already repented, but that he never did anything wrong. And to top it off, Ergun sued two Christians in order to squash a video that presented some of the most conclusive evidence of the charlatan that he truly is. Caner lost both of these lawsuits and was found to have been using the court system as a means of bullying those who would criticize him along with trying to cover up the evidence that he had been living a lie for over a decade. What leaders in the SBC refused to see and confront, two judges could see his deception with incredible clarity and ruled accordingly.
In spite of all of this, Johnny Hunt invited Ergun to speak in his pulpit. I, along with many others, hoped and prayed that something more was in the works. Perhaps Dr. Hunt was using this opportunity to give Ergun a platform to once and for all confess his sin and publicly repent for his overt deceptions. Ergun Caner had himself written, in his book Why Churches Die, that public sin demands a public confession. As the date got closer, it became more and more clear that no such confession would be coming. This led to many people crying out for Pastor Hunt put a stop to all of this. Why would he use the great influence he has to promote Caner? If he truly loved the man, he would help Caner end the deception that endangers his very soul.
Even among the membership of FBC Woodstock there were those deeply concerned. They went to the leadership and did everything they believed they possibly could to call for the leaders to act with integrity in this situation. But it was all to no avail. Sadly, the final outcome wasn’t a complete surprise. Several people predicted exactly what took place – right down to a church member being escorted off campus who had been vocal about his concerns.
There is so much that could be said about what took place yesterday, but I believe there is a critical element that desperately needs consideration. This situation exposed a much deeper ecclesiological problem in many of our SBC churches. I remember the day when pastors rightly railed about the unbiblical situation where deacons ruled the church and would often oppose the pastors from carrying out their God-given role in the church. But my how the tables have turned. In many cases, we merely exchanged one unbiblical ecclesiology for another.
For the sake of full disclosure, I believe the biblical leadership structure of the church is one that is led by a plurality of elders with the final authority given to the congregation. This calls for mutual love, trust, and respect between the elders and the congregation, along with both being fully submitted to the headship of Christ and authority of the Scriptures. The congregation is to follow the leaders who have been charged with the sober task of watching the souls of the congregants (Heb. 13:17), and the elders are to lead as loving shepherds who are not domineering over the sheep who ultimately belong to Christ (I do believe that having one of Christ’s sheep escorted out of the church is a violation of this duty. It is shameful and they will certainly give an account to Christ for this). Together, the congregation and leaders work together to follow the voice of Christ as they submit to his Holy Word in carrying out the church’s task of making disciples and equipping the saints.
With that said, I am aware the topic of elders leading the church is a hot button in many SBC circles. One concern, which I share, is the unbiblical model of pure elder rule where the congregation is not the final authority in the church. I believe one of the strongest evidences in the New Testament of the congregation being the final authority is Paul’s words to the congregation in Galatians 1:6-8. It is the congregation who has the responsibility of being the last stop to prevent false doctrine from infiltrating the church. Paul gives the congregation final authority for protecting the purity of doctrine, even over an apostle gone rogue.
Ironically, congregations, who resist a plurality of elders in the fear of that group ruling over them, have given sole authority to one man who generally leads the church without question. In this model, the Senior Pastor essentially functions as a single-elder with little to no accountability for his decisions or actions. The church is run like a business where he is the CEO and is looked to as the one who “hears from God” for the direction the church should go. In larger churches, the argument is given that the staff is to run the church. But, in reality, staff members often simply defend every decision the Senior Pastor makes as they are judged solely by their loyalty to him. Any divergence from that path will quickly lead that staff member looking for another place of employment. If a church member has a genuine issue and tries to raise it in a biblical way, they are simply reminded of their need to trust and obey the leadership. As already stated, Heb. 13:17 clearly teaches the need for the congregation to obey the leaders, but this assumes that the leaders are truly acting in a way that is “keeping watch over your souls.” The passage is not a club to beat members into submission or a “get out of jail free” card to support every decision a pastor makes. While accusations are not to be easily brought against an elder, we must not forget that an elder who persists in sin is to be publicly rebuked (1 Tim 5:19-20).
So what is a congregant to do if the leadership begins to steer the congregation in a dangerous direction and will not listen when privately confronted? Can they humbly go before the congregation to bring a concern? Well, it has been my experience that in these models the congregation has few, if any, opportunities to publicly address their concerns. Many of these churches have only one members meeting a year, often simply to approve the budget. Practically, the role of the congregation is reduced to funding whatever the Senior Pastor is calling upon the congregation to do. And since the language used by the Senior Pastor is couched in what he believes the Lord has told him to do, to oppose him is to oppose the Lord. The ecclesiological deck is stacked. I contend that this model is not only as dangerous as a church ruled by deacons, it is potentially much worse.
So what is the church member to do in such a system? Well, they can leave the church, which is what they will most likely be asked to do because loyalty to the single-elder is the first priority, or they can begin to talk to other members about their concern and be accused of gossiping and being a troublemaker. One thing you can be sure of: a single-elder will always believe in practicing some form of discipline when his authority is being challenged. There is no greater sin than “touching God’s anointed.” Could it be that some of the problems we experience from our congregants as pastors are due to our own unbiblical ecclesiology that protects us as a type of demi-god?
What happened yesterday at FBC Woodstock was sad on many levels. But it sheds light on one of the biggest needs of reformation in our churches. Church polity is interesting in that you don’t see the malady of your “system” until a problem arises. Everything can run fairly smoothly in a good church with relatively godly men even with a bad ecclesiology.
(I don’t think these pastors, for the most part, are wicked men. I believe they love the Lord and want the gospel to advance. But unbiblical polity will lead to sin in the church, just like any other deviation from Scripture. The absolute power is corrupting absolutely right before our eyes)
It is when problems or sin arises in the church that either the health or sickness of our ecclesiology is exposed for what it truly is. I think what we are seeing is a symptom of a deeper and more serious problem. I contend if FBC Woodstock had a biblical model of leadership that the events of this weekend would have most likely never occurred. But the runaway train could not be stopped because the passengers have no access to the emergency cord; the very system is designed that way.
I pray we will have a reformation in our churches to care about ecclesiology as much as we do soteriology. Senior Pastors have a responsibility to shepherd Christ’s church in the way that he commands in his Scripture. I believe much of what is taking place with many Senior Pastors is a violation of 1 Peter 5:2-4, which reads:
“shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (Emphasis mine)
Let us be reminded, pastors, that this is not OUR church. It is Christ’s church and we will give an account one day to Him for HIS flock. In addition, congregations need to remember that they too have a responsibility before God. Yes, they are to obey their leaders as they watch closely over their souls. But they should not – they MUST not – allow the ecclesiology of the church to be a system that allows for anyone, whether it be pastor or deacon, to rule over the church with unquestioned authority. You too will give an answer someday as a part of HIS church.
[Contributed by Tom Buck]