By Bob Allen
Thousands, if not millions, of church members sitting in America’s pews aren’t really born-again Christians, a Washington, D.C., pastor said April 10 to a pastors’ conference in Louisville, Ky.
Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the nation’s capital, warned on the opening day of the 2012 Together for the Gospel Conference that “false conversions” are “the suicide of the local church.”
Dever was one of four religious leaders – with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; C.J. Mahaney, president Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Md.; and Ligon Duncan, senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. – to convene the first Together for the Gospel event in 2006 to combat what they viewed as false teaching in many churches today. A statement of unifying doctrines includes male headship in the church and home and the need for church discipline of wayward members in local congregations.
This year’s conference, the fourth, was expected to draw 8,000 pastors and ministers April 10-12 to The Kentucky International Convention Center and KFC Yum! Center, with messages uploaded daily on the website t4g.org.
Dever described “members of the church who live worldly, carnal lives” as a “serious problem” in American Christianity.
“The problem I am pointing to is not just that of the occasional hypocrite lost in their own unrepentant sin,” Dever said. “I’m talking about systems which seem to produce false converts so much that it’s not just one man … but whole congregations that like Israel of old are typified and characterized not by holiness but by worldliness.”
Dever said that is a problem for church members who are “deceived about their own state before the Lord.”
“It’s just not right for a congregation to leave men or women made in the image of God with the impression that they are reconciled to God when the truth is, other than some decision recorded in 1973, there is no evidence whatsoever that they are reconciled to God,” he said. “That is not a loving thing to do for them.”
It is also a problem, Dever said, for the churches they attend, especially if they do so in large numbers.
“Congregations are to be composed of born-again, repenting sinners,” Dever said. “When a congregation is made up of many people whose lives more resemble the works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit, the experience of following Christ together, of love and encouragement and spurring on and mutual advocation and accountability, all of this is eroded and cooled and diminished. The church becomes more like the world.”
That, he said, harms the church’s witness.
“The church’s witness to the nations is subverted,” Dever said. “We become so much like the world they have no questions they want to ask us. It appears that we have no hope that is any better than theirs.… When the world is in the church, then the church begins to disappear from the world.”
Worst of all, Dever said, “God’s name is defamed.”
“Our churches are to reflect the character of God so that he will be brought glory among the nations,” Dever said. “That’s his plan. We work against him when we build churches that camouflage his character, that seem to hide it rather than display it. False conversions obscure God’s plan.”
Dever said pastors unwittingly contribute to false conversions with watered-down teachings aimed at drawing a bigger crowd.
“Avoiding the doctrine of hell is one step away from denying it altogether,” Dever cited as one example. “When you begin to teach regularly and clearly that there is a judgment, then there is an appropriate care and humility that begins to characterize your congregation’s life together.”
Dever said it’s also important for preachers to point to the dangers of self-deception, citing II Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.”
Dever said a lot of preachers are tempted to overlook unregenerate membership because they believe everyone is a sinner and don’t want to come across as being judgmental or uncharitable. But Dever, who preaches hour-long sermons on Sunday mornings, said there is a lot to be gained by having a congregation where all members are serious about following Christ.
Dever said whimsically that if pastors want to ensure their successor fails after they leave a church, they should accept as many members as possible who show no evidence of being born again.
“False teachers create false converts,” he said. “And false converts — guess what they do? They hire false teachers.”