Santa Claus, the Gospel and the Church

Posted on December 5, 2013, by

It happened again last week. On Thanksgiving morning I received an email from a friend of a friend. The first line read, “It appears I am being forced out of my pastorate.” The story that unfolded in the rest of that email and upon further inquiry is filled with themes that are tragically too common.

When Founders Ministries began thirty years ago our efforts were motivated by the strong desire to see a recovery of the biblical gospel and the reformation of local churches. Through the years, that two-fold agenda has been refined and recalibrated into a variety of strategies that span the range from conferences to publications to social networking and personal consultation. But our focus has remained consistent.

Over the last three decades we have seen incredible blessings from the Lord in a widespread return to healthier understandings of the message of salvation and church life. This is especially true among the rising generation of pastors. In many respects we must confess that far more has occurred in the way of biblical reformation than many of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. For this we praise God.

But the need for that to which Founders is committed has hardly disappeared. In fact, based on the emails, phone calls and other contacts that I receive, in some ways one might argue that the need for gospel recovery and church renewal is greater today than ever before. It certainly seems that way because of the high number of clashes that continue to exist between pastors and churches.

I am the first to admit that sometimes the problems that arise between a pastor and congregation is primarily or perhaps even exclusively the pastor’s fault. Even the most faithful pastor makes mistakes and too often men who have no business being in gospel ministry find themselves there and are inflicted on churches to the painful detriment God’s people.

But from my observation, most of the conflicts between a pastor and church arise because a pastor who has been seriously gripped by the gospel and biblical understandings of healthy church life is called to serve a congregation who has remained entrenched in deficient understandings of what the gospel is and what a healthy church is. When those competing visions collide, often serious sparks fly.

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“Because you have been attending the wrong church.” (source)

Frequently, the result is an effort to fire the pastor in ungodly ways (I have written on a right way to fire your pastor here). From what I have learned about the situation mentioned above, that is the case in the situation facing the pastor whose email I received. This man is an experienced pastor who has served this Southern Baptist church for over two years. After the first year, he encouraged the deacons to agree not to have Santa Claus as the center of attention at the next year’s Christmas celebration service. They reluctantly went along with him but after a drop in attendance at that service by 80% from the previous year, the deacon chairman recently announced, that “Santa is coming back to church. This isn’t a discussion. We’re doing it.”

At the next month’s business meeting, attendance was up by 400% with twice the number of deacons present compared to what is usually the case. The motion was made and passed that indeed, Santa is coming back to that church at this year’s Christmas service.

When I asked this pastor about his call to the church, specifically how careful he had been to discuss his theology and philosophy of ministry, I discovered that he and the church’s search committee held five lengthy interviews, including a seven-hour(!) theological interview covering nearly forty pages of questions (including questions on election). The church is self-consciously conservative and affirms the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. A final step of the candidating process involved the pastor writing a letter that outlines his doctrinal views. A copy was given to each member and was also read publicly to the congregation before they voted to call him to come serve as their pastor. The only point of contention that was raised during the whole interview process centered on race. In response to a question the pastor said he would not be “referring” non-Anglos to other churches. This was not the answer they were hoping for, but they did not regard it as a deal-breaker.

Granted, I do not have all the facts and because of that I am in no position to render any kind of final opinion on the situation. But I have learned enough, both in the last week and over the last thirty years, to recognize the pattern. This pastor is deeply committed to the lordship of Christ, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, biblical evangelism, regenerate church membership and promoting the glory of God in the church. He is confessionally reformed in his understanding of salvation. Both in writing and in conversation he expressly declared his views and approach to ministry in the interview process with the church he was called to serve.

The church is on record as being committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ and all things conservative in general. They were very careful to guard against inadvertently allowing a liberal to become their pastor. They strongly profess to believe the Bible but, despite having inerrantist pastors in the past, don’t have a very deep understanding of what the Bible actually says. The leaders believe the gospel message is true, but don’t really know how to articulate the gospel and have little regard for the all-encompassing nature of life under the lordship of Christ.

When a pastor as I have described begins to pastor a church as I have described there will inevitably be conflict. It is simply unavoidable. Tragically, in this case, the issue is purportedly over getting Santa back into Christmas. But, as is frequently true in church conflicts, the issue is not really the issue. That is, the rallying cry of the church leaders—“Santa is coming back to church!”—conveniently covers up the deeper issues related to the gospel and the church.

I would argue that the gospel has been lost in this church, although the leaders and members would undoubtedly say that they believe it. My fear is that they, like so many others, have assumed for so long that they believe it that they have never really stopped to examine it, weighing the its provisions, power and attendant duties. They probably have an inadequate understanding of the nature of saving faith in comparison to the various kinds of faith that do not save.

I would also argue that the church has deviated far from the biblical foundations prescribed by Christ and the apostles. Though they affirm regenerate church membership in theory they do not pursue it in practice. Though they have officially adopted the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as their statement of faith their method of making decisions in the church is ruled by pragmatism far more than biblical conviction. They are in desperate need of being biblically re-formed so that how they live more closely reflects that they profess to believe.

What will rescue this kind of situation? Nothing short of a recovery of the gospel and the reformation of the church.

Pray for this church and brother. Ask the Lord to move in ways that will humble all of them under the authority of His Word and the lordship of our Savior. And pray for the inevitable conflicts that will occur in thousands of other churches as the faithful ministry of God’s Word is introduced (or reintroduced) by men who are committed to both.

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Written by

Tom Ascol

Tom has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. His major field of study was Baptist Theology. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, the Midwest Center for Theological Studies and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is a Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and adjunct professor for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary through their Southwest Florida Equip Center. Tom serves as the Executive Director of Founders Ministries, an organization committed to reformation and revival in local churches. He edits the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books in addition to authoring From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention and Traditional Theology and the SBC. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition to contributing to the Founders Blog he also blogs at tomascol.com. Tom coaches a girls High School basketball team that is comprised of homeschooled students. He also enjoys hunting and riding motorcycles, and, though he currently is "in between bikes," lives with the hope that one day he will have his own Harley. He and Donna have eight children, including 2 sons-in-law. They also have one granddaughter who stole his heart at first sight.

7 Responses to "Santa Claus, the Gospel and the Church"

  1. John Metz says:

    Tom,
    This post was certainly an eye-opener for me. I find it difficult to believe that the question concerning “non-Anglos” continues to be asked by congregations and that the desired answer is pro-referral. Have they not read Colossians 3:10-11 and other similar verses? Is there no heart for receiving the believers (Romans 14-15) as Christ has received us? I (an old white guy) am dismayed! How can this be? And then, how can no “Santa” be a deal-breaker? Something is amiss.

    • Jordan says:

      John, this certainly is still a problem. Especially in Mississippi. I had a similar experience as a Music and Youth pastor of a church in south MS. They even had a member of the KKK still on the role.

    • Tom Ascol Tom Ascol says:

      John,
      Though such churches are diminishing in number it is tragic that any should still be found. You are absolutely right that something is amiss. Terribly amiss. God is at work, however, and we have many reasons to be encouraged that the recovery of the gospel that we are seeing will permeate every dark region of unsanctified church life as it is proclaimed and celebrated more and more.

      Blessings,
      ta

      • John Metz says:

        Thank you Tom and Jordan. I posted in the middle of my distress (usually not a good thing to do) and was hoping I was not too harsh. Thanks to both for you confirmations.

  2. PP says:

    Tom, there was an attempt to remove me as pastor 2 months ago where I survived by 8 votes. Even though I made it through that, half the church has stopped giving. I have no salary after the end of this year. Your article is just so sadly familiar in my experience. Yet I am reminded that through much suffering will you inherit the kingdom of God.

  3. David Valkus says:

    This Santa (Satan, same letters) thing is a real problem. Should we have a Christmas tree in the church? Are we told to remember the birth of Jesus like we are to remember his death at the Lord’s Supper? No! What have we done. Just make it up as we go? Then there is the hiring and firing of pastors. Can you give me one verse that says the church is to seek out a pastor and offer him a salary. Then another church can come around later and steel him away with a bigger church and bigger salary. Sounds like a professional pastorial pool. (I am not saying not to pay the pastor/pastors) Just have a problem with this firing and hiring bit. In other words the pastor is just a temporary member of the church of Jesus Christ that meet at ________ until he is replaced with the new temporary pastor. I hope you understand what I am saying. Use the Bible for your faith and practice. Thanks, David

  4. Rick says:

    First of all, on the lighter side, I love the deer hunting picture…I went out for deer and antelope last week but the lord felt that it would be better for me to see them rather than harvest them this year… :) Have to wait another year for my wife’s outstanding venison meatloaf.. :) Saw some beauties though!! It reminded me of Moses getting to only “see” the promised land.. :) But it was a great lesson in obedience and patience..

    On the heavier side. Thanks for this article on such a critical topic. I am a Christian Counselor with a passion for Church Health.
    You are right on.
    It’s not just about being confused as a church but about the issue of using church attendance, membership numbers and financial giving (or the lack there of) as a indicator or compass for church relational and theological health. I believe when churches do this it is a sign that the enemy is in control on these issues in the church and the leadership is seriously lacking in the intentional accounatbility dept. From talking with other Christians from around the country, it is an epidemic and systemic practice, and is currently an issue in the church my wife and I attend. Our church currently has a strong emphasis for new members and increased giving right now but very little emphasis on theological and relational/emotional health when it comes to selection of leaders and the sanctification of relationships. Crisis management at best.
    I also believe that it is the primary reason that the Lord is not adding fruit to many of the American Churches, and why many of them look and feel more like well run religious Fraternal Clubs that provide good jobs for too many staff (some positions should be volunteer positions based on calling), are more intentional about making people feel good, by providing comfortable conversations, (Santa Claus) and good coffee on Sunday, that lead more to self worship and hollow fellowship than they do to confession of sins, bearing of one anothers burdens, and the accountability and conviction we need to help us resist our naturally narcissistic tendencies, to pursue self instead of Christ, and others, and that promotes a dialogue (non verbal and verbal) that would encourage us to be accountable to be bold, creative, and effective in the communication of the faith saving gospel in the communities He calls us to.
    Put quite simply, the church you mentioned is indicative of how theologically and relationally sick many Evangelical Churches are today. They become confused and lose sight of the Truth about the direction they are headed and their motives for the same. Missionally speaking, when the leaders and soldiers are terribly sick and confused they cannot go out and fight the good fight…because sickness and confusion empower great fear…and fearful leaders and soldiers tend to retreat and let the enemy take over and direct things (knowingly and unknowingly) as this church did…Thus they bear little or no salvific or sanctification fruit and make statistics their God, making the 21st Century Evangelical Suburban Church, terribly attractive to the lukewarm leadership and laity that love comfort more than Christ, but all the while profess to be fiercely committed (unintentionally), to the biblical ideals of the conservative church, and at the same time become all but useless in the Eye’s and Heart of our King and His goals for those who are Truly His…

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