A Report on the Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
“We want your churches to display the character of God.”
—Matt Schmucker, Director of 9Marks Ministries
“Looseness of belief is the inevitable parent of looseness of practice.”
Having the last name of Smith occasionally invites the question, “Have you ever seen the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?” Until recently, my answer was no, but my wife and I recently viewed that classic movie about the naïve youth leader-become-congressman. The story is about Smith, who gets appointed to replace a senator who dies while still holding office. The politicians assume that the new congressman will be a yes-man and will not discover and expose some illegal plans they have. Smith becomes disillusioned by the corruption he finds in politics, including the duplicity of one of his political heroes, whom he once greatly respected. Smith discovers the deceit and manipulation and refuses to participate in it. After a good bit of wrestling with a pitiable situation in which he is falsely accused of a ploy to profit from a piece of legislation, Smith stages an impressive filibuster that exhausts him and leads to public confession of the secret plot when one of the perpetrators comes clean.
This Mr. Smith has never had an experience quite like that, but I did get to go to Washington, D.C. to understand God’s plan for the local church, including learning how men appointed and called by God as pastors are supposed to serve faithfully as shepherds of God’s sheep. Faithful shepherding includes dealing with error in the local church and avoiding the pressures to compromise that are prevalent in the ministry just as they are in politics.
My friend John Beeler and I attended the Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) during September 14-18, 2006, sponsored by 9 Marks Ministries. The Weekender is an intensive pastoral ministry conference. One could describe it as an immersion in the theory and practice of ecclesiology (the study of the church). It was a combination of getting to be a fly on the wall to see what a healthy church looks like and does and of being a slow-draining sink into which the knowledge and experience of the conference is still sinking. Over 50 pastors and aspiring pastors profited from the many sessions, which included substantive interaction, encouraging fellowship, helpful instruction, and late nights.
CHBC is intentionally biblical, avoiding the popular market-driven, consumer-oriented philosophies of church growth. The leaders there clearly define success as faithfulness to God. We were given the opportunity to attend an elders’ meeting, seminars on various aspects of the church, workshops on service planning and sermon preparation, membership courses, Sunday services, evaluations of sermons and the service, a members meeting (which included a church discipline case), and a final evaluation. There was much time for questions and answers and interaction with the church staff and fellow attendees. What follows is an overview of what we experienced. I have written it to encourage those who are pastors or aspiring pastors to attend this particularly helpful event.
The first major event of the conference was the elders’ meeting. Prior to the meeting, we were oriented to what would happen. We were warned that we were about to go into “the deep end” and that the goal would be to “swim to the edges” by the end of the Weekender—a very fitting metaphor.
At the meeting, we sang “It Is Well with My Soul,” the men read Scripture (from Ruth 4, which Mark Dever, the senior pastor, would soon be preaching from) and praised God for His merciful kindness. The meeting was a powerful display of accountability, transparency, humility, and love as the elders prayed for the congregation and one another. They discussed future plans of the church, including considerations for evangelistic outreach. We were dismissed before the final portion of the meeting, in which they discussed men who could potentially be future elders in the church.
CHBC is congregational in its church government but elder-led. They have a plurality of elders because of the frequent New Testament references to elders in the local church, using the word in the plural. They are congregational because of the authority of the local church stated in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 (mentioned specifically in the context of church discipline).
Elders must be men who are apt to teach, not just anyone who is available. They must evidence elder-type behavior in the congregation before formal recognition, undergo rigorous examination by other elders, and receive their unanimous approval. Then they must be chosen by a 75 percent vote of the congregation.
The local church holds the responsibility to recognize and train elders. As Michael Lawrence, associate pastor at CHBC, said, “Seminaries do not make pastors; churches make pastors.”
One way CHBC trains elders is through its internship program. This is a semester-long, intensive time of discipleship and observation for the interns. They have numerous reading and writing assignments (including Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church, Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry, and Mark Dever’s books), must be present at all church activities, are held accountable for their time, and undergo evaluation. Men have done the internship before, during, and after going to seminary.
Membership and Discipline
“If you’re not a member of the church you regularly attend, you may well be on your way to hell.” These intentionally arresting words were spoken by Mark Dever in the “Membership Matters” classes, prerequisite to joining CHBC. He was not arguing that church membership is necessary for salvation but that it naturally should follow it. CHBC takes membership seriously, believing that God has saved us to be a part of a community and that He has saved us not to have ourselves served but to serve others. They emphasize that the Christian life is not merely one’s own private business but that we are to serve one another (even with seemingly mundane things like showing up early) and build up one another in the faith.
Dever gave five reasons to join a Christian church: for the sake of 1) non-Christians; 2) weaker Christians; 3) stronger Christians; 4) church leaders; and 5) God.
Three documents were mentioned as an important part of a church’s identity: the Statement of Faith (what we believe— guards unity, protects from error, makes known the church’s doctrinal distinctives), the Church Covenant (what we promise to do—an agreement before God, the church, and ourselves of how we promise to live together as a church), and the Church Constitution.
Attendance, particularly at the Sunday morning worship service, is especially important. Absence from attending is seen as a portal to sin (a dangerous separation of one from God’s people that makes one more vulnerable to sin) or a reflection of sin (not attending because one knows he is doing wrong). Those who persist in nonattendance get excommunicated—removed from the church membership rolls. Discipline also occurs for members living in open sin. The goal of discipline is to restore the believer but also to warn others that the church cannot give testimony to their salvation (one purpose of membership) when they are walking contrary to God.
Of Interest to Fundamentalists
Going to a Southern Baptist Church could be a dangerous thing, according to some fundamentalists. I found it interesting that several of the folks I met at the Weekender were from a fundamentalist background. Several Weekender attendees were current or former students at fundamentalist seminaries. Several CHBC members had come from fundamentalist churches and schools. Have these individuals become liberal? Or have they only joined because they could not find a “fundamental” church in the area? I don’t know about the second question, but as for the first, the answer is no. They have not turned liberal. They were attracted by the focus on practicing the Bible as a serious community of believers at CHBC and appreciated the sound teaching and preaching. They were not against separating from false teachers, but they obviously had jettisoned some of the more extreme varieties of secondary separation. While many fundamentalists certainly would not laud CHBC as a bastion of Fundamentalism, they should admit that there is much to be thankful for there. But if one defines “Fundamentalism” as a commitment to the fundamentals of the faith, the central truths of Christianity, it would be hard to accuse CHBC of deviation from these.
CHBC and Mark Dever, who is a trustee at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, have demonstrated their commitment to the truth in a number of ways that go against the grain of compromising Evangelicalism. Dever successfully worked to get the D.C. Baptist Convention de-funded because they were promoting liberalism. CHBC stopped its financial support of the DCBC and is not a member today. The elders at CHBC guard the pulpit from wolves and only allow guest preachers who are committed to the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, Dever recently spoke at a conference honoring J.I. Packer, who has produced many helpful resources (including Knowing God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and A Quest for Godliness) but who has also confused many by his eclectic endorsement practices. He has helped promote proponents of biblical truth but has also been associated with Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), and has favorable words about one of the chief proponents of the dangerous “New Perspective on Paul,” N.T. Wright. Dever publicly stated his respectful disagreement with ECT at the recent event honoring Packer at Beeson Divinity School in Samford, Alabama.
The Weekender at CHBC is highly recommended. Scholarships are available for those who are concerned about cost. The Weekender is usually offered three times per year. Sign up for the Weekender at www.9marks.org or through www.capitolhillbaptist.org. There is often a waiting list, so sign up early. Also, visit the CHBC and 9Marks websites for plenty of free materials, including recordings of sermons, outlines and notes from Sunday School classes (CORE seminars), downloadable books, and leadership interviews. Another helpful resource is Jason Janz’s interview with Mark Dever in SharperIron (available in audio and print formats).
To Be Continued …
Tomorrow, I will report on the philosophy of preaching and implementing change as presented at the Weekender.
Doug Smith is a member of Cornerstone Chapel Reformed Baptist Church (Bristol, TN) and a student and preacher with the Cumberland Area Pulpit Supply, an extension of Bancroft Gospel Ministries (Kingsport, TN). You may contact him at email@example.com. His blog is located at http://www.glorygazer.blogspot.com.