The High Cost of Friendship
Your friends you choose..your relatives you’re stuck with!
The High Cost of Friendship
By Dr. Charles L. Dear, Editor
Over the past 18 years that I have been a part of the IBFNA and its parent, Regular Baptists for Revival, I have found that friendships in the ministry can be both the most refreshing and most frustrating experiences, whereby I have met good brethren I did not know before and at the same time had to break close ties with men who could no longer hold to the Biblical principles once shared in the past. Friendships in ministry can be a great source of encouragement, information and mutual strength; but just as there are rampant changes going on all around us, so also our common ground with friends may change.
It is good to find common ground with others who share our precious faith. The foundation of doctrinal agreement and Biblical practices forms the only common ground upon which we can stand and work together. The challenge comes, however, on how narrowly we draw the lines while continuing to respect local church autonomy within our fellowship. Some groups have succumbed to the temptation to describe themselves in terms of what they oppose, but that can be a never-ending process of revision as churches and other organizations continue to compromise. It becomes, therefore, a task of determining what principles are absolutely non-negotiable and which others we will grant a latitude of application or practice that is still within the bounds of acceptability. It also requires careful evaluation, lest we be guilty, as some have charged, of elevating personal preferences to the level of non-negotiable principles. As we consider who might be included by principles written in our doctrinal statement, we need also recognize that there will be others who will be excluded by those same principles. I remember when Dr. L. Duane Brown spoke in one of our IBFNA conferences and made the distinction between those who were our family and others who were our friends. Our richest fellowship is with our spiritual “family;” that is, with those who stand together with us on the doctrines of the Bible and the issues of our day. But there are some who are just “friends,” whom we respect but might not invite to preach in our pulpits.
The importance of agreement upon doctrinal principle is itself a guideline that must be jealously guarded. For many of us, our ties with others in the ministry were formed early, as we were classmates in Bible college or seminary. Those formative years of training, as well as the late night “discussions,” not only helped settle some doctrinal issues in our own hearts but also formed bonds of friendship that have continued long after school days are past. For others, there were men we met while in the ministry, whom we have come to know and appreciate through Associations and Fellowships in which we participate. However, many of us in more recent years have been brought to the awkward place of having to choose between friendship and fellowship and Biblical principles. Fast friendships are priceless and beneficial until change and compromise on the part of one tests the principles once agreed to, but now only maintained by the other man. So what shall we do? Scripturally, we must begin by admonishing our brother, counsel with him and learn the reasons for the change. Indeed, what value is our friendship if we watch in silence as a brother compromises his own reputation and ministry? Some of the explanations you will hear smack of conventionism, where friendships are means unto the ends of other ministries, recommendations to para-church positions, etcetera. Some have sadly confessed that they only paid lip service over the years to Biblical principles they did not truly believe while having another agenda upon their hearts. Pressing others has revealed that their fellowship has been broadened to such a degree that even the most sacred Baptist principles, such as congregational polity, have been undermined and set aside. Perhaps, like some of the people in our congregations, we need to guide some of our brethren in the ministry as to where they should and should not seek friendships.
There comes a point, however, where every one of us must ask what price is being paid for this friendship and answer the question in light of the fact that my own spiritual integrity will be reflected by my answer. I must recognize that a loyalty to friendship above loyalty to Scripture, will do neither of us any real spiritual good. Over the last twenty years I have parted company with so many whom I respected and blindly trusted, from others in whose pulpits I had preached years before and still others who stood in positions of leadership and authority who have abandoned what they taught me to be in the ministry. I cannot afford the price of such friendship and neither can you, lest our efforts to help them be misunderstood as some kind of approval or we become drawn into their compromise ourselves. Thankfully, the Lord has provided a gracious alternative in a Fellowship such as ours. Many of us in the IBFNA, have also turned the page on past ties and moved ahead with others who will not compromise for the sake of friendship.
We need strong friendships in the ministry with those of like precious faith. The lone rangers who have need of no one else have not demonstrated the benefits of their isolationism. In fact, in recent years it has been my experience that some who prefer to stand alone become so inbred with their own peculiar doctrines and hobbyhorses as to become cultic within their closed world. They have no objective basis for comparison for their unique perspectives and twists of Scripture, and without the work of iron sharpening iron from without, they magnify the peculiarities of their own making to the detriment of preaching the whole counsel of God.
For Baptist preachers the foundation of fellowship has been the Associations of Baptist Churches, whereby independent Baptists need not surrender any of their autonomy by gathering together with brethren in ministries of like precious faith. Historically, such Associations served to further the work of the Lord by cooperative efforts among the churches represented to further the cause of Christ or to redress grievances with the powers that be. It was the value of a larger united voice that drew men out of their respective ministries to gather together in one place for a time of important business, fellowship and the preaching of the Word. The blessing of hearing others preach should not be taken lightly.
How often do we hear other brethren preach? If we’re in the pulpit most (perhaps all) of the time (another weakness of lone rangers), the only real time we ourselves are fed is in the personal study of the Word or in our preparations to preach to others. More recently, there are other alternatives in our computer age and, as one who has more than 60 sermons online, the Internet can help relieve some of the isolation. Nothing, however, compares with the gathering together of preachers, where we can hear blessed preaching, engage in stimulating conversation across the dinner table and meet new people who face the same trials and triumphs that we do in our own ministry. If we are going to preach to our people the importance of the ministry of encouragement between one another, ought we not to model that ministry by being a blessing to our peers in the ministry and encouraging one another in the work of the Lord? Likewise, when we promote the concept of accountability to our people, does not our gathering together with other in the ministry promote a measure of accountability with each other? Is it not the heart of iron sharpening iron that we voluntarily offer others the privilege to test the edge on our sword, as we also test theirs? The struggle we face today is more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy, more about actual application of Biblical principles than their recitation or publication. I am always reminded how the Presbyterian Church had long abandoned the Westminster Confession functionally before it abandoned the Confession officially and publicly.
Churches need to recognize the value of sending their pastor to a good Bible conference that will revive and refresh their man for the pulpit and other labors for the Lord at home. There are spiritual challenges that can be brought to the heart of a pastor that cannot be gleaned from the members of his church. There are issues abroad in this rapidly changing landscape called Christian ministry that will have a definite impact if not upon his church, then upon the community where his church ministers. Likewise, the turbulent changes in schools and agencies, that might be otherwise unknown, will have a definite impact upon the future of our churches in terms of the next generation of leadership. Isolation, inbreeding and the presumption that “all things continue as they were since the fathers fell asleep,” will contribute significantly to a threatening measure of ignorance and naivete that could radically change or destroy a local church’s testimony in the future.
Dr. Charles L. Dear
Editor, THE REVIEW