Joshua Harris interview: Part 3 of 3

Communications Staff — August 19, 2009

This is the final part of a three-part interview with Joshua Harris,senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. Here are parts 1 and 2. In this final part of the interview, Harris talks about the value and importance of local church involvement, a healthy approach leaving a church and whether or not he recommends seminary training.

You can also download a pdf of the Towers issue on “Your First Pastorate” that features a story on Harris.

Q. You shared a story (in your Gospel Coalition 2009 national conference presentation) about a woman who wanted herself, Jesus and a mountain stream for baptism. It is not uncommon for that kind of individual spiritual experience to be spiritual mecca for people. How do you encourage people that corporate involvement is spiritually healthy for them?

JH: We have to keep hearing things over and over again. Every time someone is baptized we have to keep reminding people of the significance of it [corporate involvement with other Christians in a local church], the meaning of it, the purpose of it.

It is not just your private spiritual experience, but here is what it means in terms of the church, here is how it glorifies God and here is what we are doing as we sit and watch. We are playing a part in this and we are accepting this person into membership and that is an incredible statement.

People have to keep hearing that over and over again to counter an individualistic approach to baptism. Again, it comes back to God’s Word. We have to keep having the Scripture taught to us.

In “Stop Dating the Church” I talk about the idea that when you date the church, meaning when you hop around, when you are uncommitted, you are not only first and foremost disobeying God, because God calls you to love His church, but you are cheating yourself because you are not going to be receiving all the grace that flows to you through the church: care, love, encouragement, all that.

And you are cheating others of that because you bring spiritual gifts to the party. You are called to be speaking that truth to somebody else. If people can start to see that and they can realize it is so much bigger than them and they are only thinking of themselves … I mean with baptism: you are only thinking of yourself if you just want the mountain stream.

Another person who I just talked to recently said they were going over to Israel because they wanted to be baptized in the Jordan River. Okay, I understand that: that is cool. That is a pretty neat thing. But I would love for people to be in place to say, “you know what, unless my church is there I want to be baptized in the fake tank because this is not just about me this is about us. This is about what God is doing in us. God used the people in this church to save me and I want, because I am called to this community, I want unbelievers there, I want them to here me testify to what Jesus has done.”

And so, it is not just about me, it is about God and it is about others.

Q. Is there ever a biblical situation where you are in a church that is not guilty of any significant moral failing or doctrinal infidelity where it is valid to leave and go to another church? Maybe you see a church that is thriving, that is biblically healthy, where the leadership of your current church does not share a vision you think a church should have: Is it valid to switch churches in that type of a situation or is that being a church hopper?

JH: It would be important first of all to evaluate the pattern of your own life if you are considering leaving a church to go to another one in your area. If you say, “I’m thinking I should do this.” Someone could ask, “Well, have you ever done this before?” And you might say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done this eight times in the last two years.” If that is the case, you [pastor] might need to stop and say, “Do you realize there is a pattern here, that you are always seeing something better?” So, that is one thing to ask.

But another thing would be to just personally take that before the Lord and evaluate your own motives in it and ask the question, “Okay, have I been serving in this church? Have I been playing a part in helping it to grow?”

Another question I would ask is have you humbly communicated some of those things [reasons you might leave] to the leaders. That is hard to do. It is easier to criticize than to it is to have that face-to-face time where you say, “I respect you, I love this church, but I want to share ways in which I think that we could grow. And I want that to be open to evaluation. Maybe I am not seeing something clearly.” That is hard. It is easier just to leave or just to stay and gripe, than it is to humbly present something and not assume you are right.

I would want to evaluate, have I done those things and if the Lord continues to press on me this sense of just a lack of fruitfulness. And I want to process that in a way that is very God-honoring, respectful and not divisive. Not gossiping to other people. Sharing any concerns that you have directly with the leaders. Making sure that, to the best or your ability, you are leaving them with your blessing. That you honor them in the way that you leave. You leave in a way that preserves the unity of that local church and doesn’t create any ill will and so on.

So, I think there is a lot of thoughtfulness and prayerfulness needed in a process like that. But I definitely think there can be situations where it is appropriate to leave in a situation like that. I would just encourage people to realize that our tendency is do that too frequently, so just really ask yourself some tough questions and make sure you are leaving for the right reasons.

Q. Do you encourage men to get seminary training, do you take it on case-by-case basis: what is your approach to that?

JH: I would not encourage people to follow my course. I would have benefitted from seminary training. And part of what I need to do in the rest of my days of ministry is to work extra hard to be pursuing theological training in other venues because of my lack of such training. Obviously, I would not trade what I have experienced for the world, but we all have to make up for different deficiencies.

One of my convictions is that, I think it is ideal, if men can be raised up for ministry in the local church where their gifts can really be confirmed and demonstrated in the way that they are serving there. And then for their theological education and training to be such that they are being sent by their local churches. That their training for ministry isn’t disconnected from the local church.

I don’t think it is ultimately helpful or healthy when people come to that conclusion themselves, where they say, “I want to be in ministry and so I am going to go get this degree and now I need to go shop for a church.” I’m not saying the Lord doesn’t use that, but what we are trying to do in our local church is to have the training and confirming of guys’ calling [to vocational ministry] to happen in the local church.

In Sovereign Grace, we have the pastor’s college, which is very different and limited compared to full seminary training, but it is a very rigorous theological training that happens in the context of a local church where they are kind of living in that context and then very quickly deployed to the church that sent them or church planting internships.

But I am just so grateful for what Dr. Mohler is doing and the model at Southern, the army of pastors that is being raised up there. And I know that he has a real heart for that training to more and more connected to the local church. He is a local church man himself. That is what I so respect about him.

The other thing I think is certain men have unique gifts where they would benefit from seminary training in addition to some of the things that we do in Sovereign Grace. Where that extra education would only make them more useful and more strategic in the kingdom.

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