This brings us to teaching. Moderate churches generally have a very weak educational program, because the doctrines that divide the church are off limits. Either one side dominates the classes and the other side doesn’t listen, or else the tough topics are just never talked about in a serious way. Or else there’s one class that teaches one doctrine and another class that teaches another–but no one is ever required to question his pre-existing beliefs.
After all, serious consideration of the doctrines that divide the members would seem, well, divisive. It just seems so prudent to avoid such issues and talk about what the church agrees on. But avoiding the conflict is the surest road to division.
Make no mistake–I believe it’s quite possible, and even desirable, for conservatives and progressives to worship and study together. I don’t believe in segregating congregations by doctrinal sympathies. Obviously, sometimes we are just too far apart to work together, but as a rule, we aren’t. This is amply demonstrated by the many very small congregations that manage to operate with widely differing opinions among the members. Necessity is the mother of tolerance.
The sad truth is that as our churches grow and prosper, we forget how we used to get along despite our disagreements and instead split our congregations into smaller, homogeneous groups that all think alike. Now, if we could get along when we had just 50 members, we ought to be able to get along with 300, but we don’t. Rather, very selfishly, we divide just as soon as we get big enough to do so.
This is often because our leaders often fail to teach us how to get along. Rather, we get along because of circumstances, not because we have principled reasons to do so. And this is wrong. We are commanded to get along and to be united.
The solution is better teaching. Better teaching begins with better attitudes, as explained in part 2. If the members are required to love one another, they’ll want to learn how to get along. It sounds childish, I suppose, to talk about requiring members to love. It’s like telling your 3-year old daughter to love her 2-year old little sister. But you have to start somewhere. Tell your members to love each other or leave.
(2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Of course, the “or leave” part comes at the very end. Long before issuing an ultimatum, the leadership must gently, prayerfully counsel the members on how Jesus would have them behave. “Or leave” is commanded, but only as a last resort. Matt. 18:15-17; Tit. 3:10.
Another advantage of insisting on love is that it restructures the congregation’s lines of authority along more Biblical lines. At last, the elders will truly be in charge, with the members being shepherded in a much more Godly way. The most selfish and hateful members will no longer be pulling the elders’ strings. They will have to either submit to the body or leave. Most will submit, and time and prayer and the Spirit will give them joy for having done so.
With a congregation ready to be instructed, the elders now have to teach. A congregation cannot stay united other than based on the doctrine of grace. The central lesson of Christianity we often forget is that we truly deserve damnation. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but until we appreciate how little we deserve what we’ve been given, it’s too easy to look down on others, especially those who dare disagree with us.
There is no other way to build unity. Unity is the natural consequence of understanding grace. Sadly, a very large portion of the Churches of Christ doesn’t understand grace and so have trouble being united.
Hence, an eldership that wants a united church has to take a very courageous step: learn and teach grace. I don’t mean the parched, narrow grace that we sometimes substitute for the real thing. It has to be the whole counsel of God. We can’t try to play it safe and cover only the non-controversial parts. The controversial parts are the parts that keep churches united.
I know several churches that were held together by politically astute preachers or elders for many years. But when these leaders died or left the church, the church split. Sadly, the great preacher or leader was afraid to ask the members to truly learn the gospel of grace. It didn’t seem urgent, because the members were willing to stay together. Compromises were made. Deals were struck. And for the longest, people got along.
When the leader died or moved to another church, the members began jockeying for control. The progressives wanted a livelier worship. The conservatives wanted the old hymns back. And the great political leader was gone. Pretty soon, the members were at each others’ throats.
Had the great political leader used his political capital to teach the gospel of grace and love, the members would have done just fine without him. But with him gone, it was too late to reunite. In fact, they were never united, only meeting in the same building. The church died. It may have never really been alive.