Finding the right hill to die on in practical pastoral leadership

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I’ve been enjoying reading Gavin Ortlund’s “Finding the right hill to die on” about theological triage. The concept of Theological Triage was coined by Al Mohler to describe how Christians go about distinguishing first, second and third order issues. In other words, there are theological issues that are central to the Gospel itself, it is important that we separate ourselves out from those who hold a wrong position because their faulty teaching will lead to Christ denying heresy. However, some doctrines are important and need to be engaged with even though they are not themselves issues of heresy.

The term “the right hill to die on” comes from the idea that in battle, there comes appoint when it is essential to defend your position because it is crucial not just to the battle but to the war. There times when you can fall back and regroup but not here.  This is where you must be ready to take your last stand in order to hold off the enemy.

Now, those matters may strike in church life.  Is it right in our context for example to make a stand on women elders or who takes communion or mode of baptism? Each of these issues may not be “first order” in their own right and yet a decision to let them go might have huge implications for the spiritual health of your congregation or denomination going forward. There were one or two issues during my time at Bearwood where if it had come to the crunch point, I would have had to say that my position would be untenable going forward if the church decided to go down that route. In effect, the decision would have put our church practice in serious conflict with what I taught from the front, in small groups and 1-1 about what God’s Word said. 

However, the triage we need is often less about theological issues. Indeed, most of us are well adept and experienced at making such calls. If you are a pastor who has been through theological training, this will be something you spent 3-4 years training for.  That’s not a criticism of Ortlund’s book. It helpfully sets these issues out for the wider church to learn about. Rather, it’s just that the area I think we need to give more attention to is in the day to day leadership and pastoral decisions you make as a church.

The decisions we make as pastors and elders tend to include things like

  • Building projects
  • Appointing of new leaders
  • Starting and closing ministries
  • Compliance with aspects of health and safety guidance and regulations during a pandemic
  • The balance of advice, assurance, challenge and discipline in pastoral issues particularly touching on relationship issues such as marriage and divorce, Christians marrying non-Christians etc.

So, how do we go about making those decisions? Well just as Ortlund suggests specific triage questions for theological issues, so too, I think it helps to have such questions here.  I’m going to highlight three potential questions now (there are of course more we can ask). However, these for me are the big ones.

  1. Will a decision bring us into conflict with God’s clear revealed will. In other words, am I being asked to disobey the teaching of Scripture.? Most decisions we are faced with in church life are about wisdom, about “it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit” rather than about “thus says the Lord.” However, there will be times when failure to make a decision will bring you into conflict with what God’s Word requires of you.
  2. Does opposition to a decision reflect a wider opposition to the Gospel mission of the local church? Let me give you an example. Back in 2012, we had a decision to make as a church.  How could we make space for growth so more people could hear the good news? We could have moved to a rented venue for a time, rebuilt bigger, planted a church or, as we decided to do, started a second morning congregation. Now choosing to die on any of those individual hills would seem over the top to me. I’m not going to walk out on the church because it does or doesn’t meet in a school or because it does or doesn’t have a second service. However, if we had reached the situation where every single option was voted down and no alternatives offered. If essentially the church had said “we would rather keep things as they are and deny people the opportunity to come to Christ” then we would have been in a different situation. How long in good conscience would the elders have been able to continue with that?
  3. Do we have time?  This is important. It may well be that the wrong decision is made now but you have time on your side. By the way, I think it is best to introduce things to a church when this is the case rather than when time has run out. So, it could be that I need to learn patience on the matter. It may mean we will experience a wilderness period akin to the Israelites heading back into the Sinai peninsula for 40 years but all hope is not lost. It is worth recalling that Joshua and Caleb had to wander with the people for the 40 years even though they had been ready to enter the land.

This reminds us that there will be plenty of occasions when pastoral ministry is just about prayer, persuasion and patience. However, there will be times when a line is crossed. We should not just go with the flow to protect our status, pay check or popularity.  It is worth remembering that around the world, pastors have to make decisions about which hill to die on where the death is a literal one because they take a stand for what matters for the Gospel. 

There will be times when it is not just right but vital to insist that a wrong decision is a break point. I pray that those will be few and far between in your ministry and that you will enjoy the delights of clear Gospel unity as a church. However I also pray that if and when such scenarios turn up you will have the wisdom to spot them and to know how to handle them.

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