Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Welcoming Guest Speakers

Today is the third day in our 48th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Ezra 5-6; 3 John; Psalm 95.

Many churches today have given up having revival services, but within the Baptist tradition, this practice is still strong.  As a pastor, I always look forward to having a visiting pastor from another church or a traveling evangelist bring a message to my congregation.  But over the years, I've found (by trial and error) that I have to be careful about who comes to preach.  If you're not careful, you can invite the wrong preacher who will teach from a perspective you don't want shared from your pulpit.  So it's important to screen visiting preachers carefully.

A couple of the churches I have served have had revival committees, whose job it was to organize every aspect of our revival services--including who would be the guest speaker.  This was always a source of great difficulty for me, and sometimes a place of contention between me and the members of those committees.  In the mind of most revival committee members, their job was to find a "good speaker."  They weren't thinking of the spiritual repercussions that can take place when someone with bad theology gets into the pulpit and shares something false.  They just wanted their friends to come and preach, or to have a preacher with a reputation for vibrant sermons.  Having no desire for conflict, sometimes I have capitulated and agreed to invite someone that I'd never heard of, and didn't know.  And we paid the price for it when the speaker said something like, "You know, a lot of pastors out there are teaching such-and-such, but I'm here to tell you that they're wrong!"  

And you can guess what I'd just happened to be teaching a couple of weeks prior.  Yep--you guessed it.  I was one of those pastors who had been teaching such-and-such.  And I had to do damage control for weeks afterwards, defending a theological position that was perfectly legitimate, and that had been uncontested prior to the ill-spoken words of an evangelist that I never wanted to come into the pulpit in the first place.  I spent countless hours counteracting the negative effects of bad teaching, that should never have been in the pulpit to begin with.

And yet, even after things like this took place, revival committees insisted that it was their job to invite speakers, and not my job to veto anybody that they wanted to suggest.

This may be a bee in my bonnet, but I have to tell you--it's always a pastor's job to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any speaker who comes into the church.  God has given the pastor oversight over the flock, and that means he needs to sometimes protect the congregation from rogue preachers who might undermine the very things that the God has been working in the church.  You have to be careful who you invite into your pulpit.

On the other hand, it's possible to be so careful that you refuse to let any outside influence come in.  In the book of 3 John (NIV), the apostle writes to Gaius, a faithful servant of the church who was known for his hospitality.  Gaius frequently welcomed traveling preachers, who were known to declare the true message of Jesus.  John praises him for his openness.  He also says

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

3 John tells us that it's important to be open about allowing traveling preachers into our congregations.  Yet, it's also important to make sure that they are teachers of the truth.  Remember, 1 John 4:1-3 says not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits, whether they have sound doctrine or not.  Als, 2 John 1:10-11 says not to welcome those who have a false teaching.  It even says that if you welcome false teachers, then you are playing a part in their wicked work.  So we need to be careful--but not too careful.

John says that Diotrephes (it is unknown whether Gaius was the pastor, whether Diotrephes was the pastor, or whether neither was) has been causing troubles within the church by being too protective.  John had apparently written to Diotrephes, and asked him to share the letter with the entire congregation.  Yet, the overly controlling Diotrephes, jealous for attention and insecure about sharing his teaching position with the apostle, had refused to share John's message with the church.  John says:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 

Deciding who to invite and who not to invite is a very subtle task, one that requires a lot of theological understanding, prayer, and wisdom that comes from experience.  While it's a good idea for revival committees to organize the travel arrangements, honoraria, and other aspects of visiting speakers, it's best for the pastor to invite those that he or she knows and trusts to give a true teaching. 

Finally, 3 John mentions Demetrius, who is likely the person delivering John's letter.  He may also have been a traveling evangelist, himself.  John writes this note of commendation, so that hopefully he will be given an opportunity to preach in Gaius' and Diotrephes' church.

12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

I hope that your church will welcome guest preachers who are well spoken of by everyone--and even by the Truth Himself.  Be careful who your church invites--and if your pastor finds himself between a rock and a hard place, come to his assistance and defend the pastor's right to either invite or veto a speaker.  Unless he's shown himself to be manipulative like Diotrephes, you should trust your pastor's discernment on this matter and welcome those ministers whom your pastor invites.

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