Why we should merge churches–overcoming doctrinal differences

MergerAs previously noted, there are very real, very practical difficulties in trying to merge congregations. The foremost difficulty is our intolerance of doctrinal differences.

It’s instructive to see how we behave depending on the options available in our home town. For example, I’m familiar with a town having only one Church of Christ, a struggling congregation of about 50. The church has non-institutional members, progressive members, no-Sunday school members, and even a one-cup member. You see, we will tolerate some diversity of belief when the alternative is to be all alone.

In a town with two churches, the isolation of the churches drives them to diverge in doctrine and practice. Progressive members tend to attend the church with more progressive leadership. Conservative members drift toward the church that reflects their views. Over time, the churches become very different, and churches that were once close drift apart and even disfellowship each other.

Had those two congregations begun as one, larger congregation, this may not have happened. Rather, with strong leadership, the members would have come to love each other so much that separation would be unthinkable. Grace would be a welcomed teaching, because grace allows Christians to stay with people they love. People who love each other look for ways to be together. Our frequent division is plainly symptomatic of a lack of love, and the love is missing because we insist on being isolated. “Divide and conquer” is a strategy that works well for Satan.

When we’re isolated from each other in separate churches, we can actually celebrate our division, as we are “protected” from the false teachings of the others. Of course, as we’ll never hear their reasons for believing as they do, those of us who are in error will never be corrected. We’ll just spend our lives having our error affirmed by our preacher. It’s all very comfortable and very wrong.

Here’s the solution: our elders and preachers should be in fellowship with elders and preachers in other churches. They should study the Bible together. They should study books together and discuss them. They should consider one another deeply loved brothers and seek to establish a common understanding of God’s word–at least sufficiently common so that we can worship and work together.

But we never do this. Can you think of one Godly reason that we refuse to study the Bible together? Can you think of one Godly result from this evil habit?

Now, in some towns, the preachers get together periodically for fellowship and support. This is a good thing. But it’s woefully insufficient. After all, the elders are ultimately responsible for doctrine, and so the elders must be involved in any serious effort to reach common doctrinal ground. Of course, some elders are weak and rely on the preacher to tell them what the Bible says. These elders especially need to get away from a domineering preacher and study with other elders and let the Bible guide them.

This is important. It’s more important than just about any other issue facing the Churches of Christ today. Our isolationism is destroying us and God’s work through us.

Now, some will object that if our leaders are studying the Bible together they may have a secret agenda to merge churches and that would be terrible. Well, those who object need to stop being on Satan’s side and get on Jesus’ side. Unity is a command. A selfish insistence on preserving a comfortable status quo is sin.

Finally, a merger isn’t always the necessary or even desired outcome. Perhaps it would be enough just to finally think of each other as brothers and sisters–the kind of brothers and sisters that you are closer to than siblings in the flesh. Perhaps there’s good reason for multiple congregations, perhaps due to geographical distance or the need to be close to a particular good work, such as a campus or inner city ministry. Merger isn’t a command. Unity is. And having the same name isn’t unity. Serving Jesus together, side by side, is.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Why we should merge churches–overcoming doctrinal differences

  1. philip says:

    Now I confess I no longer believe in separate church but practical speaking combining churches does not work. In fact uniting any group really works whether it is a church, a mosque, a knitting club etc. Sociology studies prove it. 75% of the time after both groups merge, within two years the combined group / church will have declined to the same size of just one of the joining groups. Enjoy your blog

  2. philip says:

    I just read my last comment and saw all the typos, sorry !

  3. Jay Guin says:

    If we run our churches as social clubs, as we often do, we'll get social club results. If we are true to our calling as Christians, I think the dynamics that drive the sociology will be different–and I've seen it happen. It's all about whether the mission, rather than our personal comfort, is paramount.

  4. Denise says:

    I just read this. It was one of the links after the article about "church growth: having a story." Your paragraph above about the elders relying on the preacher to tell them what the Bible says rings a bell for me. In our congregation the preacher is also an elder. I personally do NOT like this. The preacher/elder is really put up as THE elder by the other elders. Any comments on this type of situation?

    As far as the articles go on mission statements and merging of churches, you are insightful in your ideas. As you responded in your comment to Philip-your ideas can work if the church is in the right mindset.


  5. Jay Guin says:

    The elder/preacher issue has always been controversial. It’s ironic. 1 Tim. 5:17 speaks of elders who preach. Plainly, there’s no per se scriptural objection. However, when the elder/preacher is on the payroll, a conflict of interest arises. This is often resolved by having the preacher not participate in such matters, but it’s still hard to supervise a peer — a fellow elder.

    We have two elders on the payroll. Both are retired and work part-time. Neither is the preacher. Their service has been a great blessing to the work of the church.

    My observation is that smaller churches often appoint the preacher because of his education and experience and the lack of enough other men who are qualified. When they do this, they create a conflict of interest which is hard to deal with for the same reasons that led to ordaining the man in the first place — an absence of qualified leadership other than the preacher. As a result, the preacher can come to dominate the church. (But this isn’t always the case. Some preacher/elders serve with humility and grace. You just have to be very, very careful whom you appoint.)

    On the other hand — I know of countless churches where the preacher is not an elder but he is given the same power as a bishop over the elders. Again, it’s because the elders lack the training or Bible knowledge the preacher has (or seems to have). The greater problem, therefore, is a lack of leadership outside the pulpit adequate to create a true plurality of opinion and to allow the leaders to check one another.

    One solution would be to get the other elders better trained (I’ve discussed this at http://oneinjesus.info/2007/04/06/on-the-training-of-elders/.) We have an institutional blind spot when it comes to elder training. It should be a well-established discipline — if you want to be an elder, you’ll attend lectureships, read books on church leadership, etc.

    This is also one reason I feel so strongly we should have more church mergers. We need to pool our God-given talents so we have the best leaders leading the most people, the best teachers teaching, etc. Larger churches have no need to make the preacher an elder, and if they do ordain him, the other elders are more likely to have the knowledge and skills to bring balance to the eldership.

    On balance, while it’s not sin to make the preacher an elder, it’s a practice fraught with danger and usually a bad idea. But not always. It depends on the man. Here’s a test — the more he wants the job, the less likely it is that he should have the job. Humility and a servant heart is always necessary for an elder — but they are all the more essential for an elder-preacher.

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