Overseeing the Moderate Church, Part 1

[This series from way back in March 2007, when there were maybe, oh, 30 readers, keeps getting attention because a lot of churches wrestle with these problems. I thought it might be helpful to re-run it, and I couldn't help editing it just a tad.]

Divided churchSome churches are thoroughly progressive, with progressive elders, staff, and members–at least, most of them. Some churches are thoroughly conservative, with conservative elders, staff, and members–at least, most of them. But most are not. Most are something else. Let’s call them “moderate.”

Obviously, a moderate church has a serious, built in problem–its elders, staff, and members are theologically divided. Now, this is not an insurmountable problem, but it’s a big problem. It’s especially big because most churches have leadership that seeks to avoid confrontation, meaning that this serious problem will not be addressed. Rather, the usual Church of Christ style is to sweep the problem under the rug.

The natural human tendency to look for easy answers is almost always wrong. Consider an example. In a moderate church a young man is asked to lead singing, which he does very well. However, he likes to lead contemporary songs in addition to some of the older hymns. The younger members are thrilled with the new music, but an older member goes to the elders and complains.

The elders are well aware that they lead a divided church. Therefore, there is no discussion about what is right and wrong. Rather, they immediately consider the political impact of this situation. How will the older, more conservative members in Br. Smith’s class react? How will the younger, more progressive members in Br. Jones’ class react? What conclusion can they reach that will keep both sides happy, at least happy enough to stay, volunteer, and give?

Meanwhile, when the identical situation arises in a progressive church, the elders consider what the Bible says, as they read it. If they conclude the Bible permits this practice, they allow it. The complaining member is gently taught why the elders and the rest of the church believe as they do. If the complaining member is sufficiently unhappy, the member may leave, but only after having been taught and prayed with. But most of the time, the member decides to stay. After all, he feels loved and shepherded, even if the member is uncomfortable with some of the church’s practices.

In a conservative church, much the same thing happens. The result is different, but the process is the same. A united church stands behind its principles, teaches what it believes, and refuses to let a minority dictate practice to the majority. United churches have the delightful luxury of standing on principle, that is, actually doing what they think is right.

But the moderate church can engage in no teaching because even its elders have differing views. The staff may be divided, too. Teaching is impossible. The complaining member isn’t corrected or taught and isn’t asked to go along with the leadership’s understanding of the Bible. They have no common understanding.

As a result, the decision made is a political compromise. Perhaps the young song leader is told to eliminate the new songs, leaving the new music for the youth group’s devotionals. Perhaps the new songs are only allowed on Sunday nights.

Now, great truths can be taught in a moderate church, and one of them is submission to the body and the over-arching importance of unity. However, in my experience, these truths only get taught to the more progressive members. The complaining member isn’t asked to submit to the leadership of the song leader who actually has responsibility for the ministry or, for that matter, to the desires and beliefs of the teens or other young members. No, the assumption is that the most conservative members of the church get their way, even on matters that are sometimes legalistic in the extreme.

This has the effect of empowering the most rule-bound members and giving control of the church over to them, rather than the elders. One of the great sins of church leadership is giving control of the church over to a vocal minority that could never qualify as elders themselves. The congregation would never consider these complainers qualified to be leaders, and yet the elders give them the final say on any controversial matter. This is very, very anti-Biblical.

Worse yet, these members, being human, quickly come to expect to get their way. One day, when time has changed the demographics of the church, they’ll find that a decision was made that they disagree with, and they’ll be astonished that they weren’t asked whether they veto it. They’ll, quite predictably, be mad. This being a Church of Christ, they’ll doctrinalize their complaint, insisting the Bible requires this and only this outcome! (This is often the real root of the “worship wars” so many churches are struggling with.)

This will have the effect of raising the emotional stakes so high that the church threatens to explode. Once you’ve publicly announced that the Bible says such-and-such, it’s hard to back down. It’s too late for the elders and staff to teach a better understanding of the gospel. People are too angry to listen. The church splits.

The church, which was already struggling financially, can’t support it’s staff, scales back its programs, and begins an inevitable decline into nonexistence. The members who remain blame those who left, but the real fault is with the leadership for sweeping the problem under the rug. Had they addressed it sooner, the church would not have died. It might have even prospered.

More in part 2.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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29 Responses to Overseeing the Moderate Church, Part 1

  1. Jeff says:

    I don't doubt division occurs at times in individual congregations along the lines you describe.

    However, it's worth noting the largest division among churches of Christ in America (the institutional divide) occurred by the more liberal exiling the more conservative, not the other way around.

  2. Bob Harry says:

    Jeff is right. The libersal point of view is taken and the conservatives are ignored. Many are the older groups who do not want change are not listened to. There must be a middle ground of compassion on both sides. My experience, and I am vwery progressive is that the elders and staff ignore any suggestions.

  3. Alan says:

    I can't remember what I might have said two years ago on this.. but I can't resist commenting on a couple of points now.

    But the moderate church can engage in no teaching because even its elders have differing views.

    There is a much better way to deal with this. The elders may disagree but they accept one another anyway. So they can teach their two points of view as an unresolved question, and call members to accept one another as the elders do. We've done that on one or two topics, and it works beautifully.

    I suspect there are topics on which such a disagreement exists in every eldership. Romans 14 works between elders too.

    Disagreements in the church are a lot like disagreements in a marriage. Sometimes winning the argument means you lose. It's not the final decision, but the process, that matters most.

  4. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i don't doubt you describe the plight of a lot of churches, but i attend a congregation that i would style "moderate," but really doesn't fit this description. There is a wide diversity of views among congregants, but honestly not a lot of in-fighting. There's some, i suppose. But incredibly miniscule compared to the scenarios you describe.

    i'd tend to describe my congregation's leadership as more united than the scenario you describe. The elders and staff are in basic agreement that some moves made by progressive churches are well and fine and not sinful, but we're just going to stick with a more traditional practice anyway. It's true there are conservative members there that prefer it this way who would probably complain if things changed too much, but even then, the complaints wouldn't be sharp or bitter.

    We already do things quite differently from you're average conservative church. We did the Andy Griffith series with popcorn and coke on Sunday nights for months and months with plenty of participation by the regular Sunday night crowd. We do children's bible hour and baby dedications on Sunday mornings. We have a full-time female children's minister. We occasionally have a seated-yet-microphoned 'praise team.'

    Perhaps, we'd be best considered an old-school liberal congregation. Back 40 or 50 years ago, Mayfair was very much on board with the ideas of the likes of K.C. Moser.

    Anyway, my real point being, aren't there other congregations that would be "moderate" who don't really fit into the category you're describing?

    –Guy

  5. John says:

    I have to disagree with Jeff on this.

    My view is that in the many churches I have attended over the years (I grew up in a Military Family and was in the Military myself) that the more conservative members are the vocal ones that want their "club" to stay the same. The prefer the rules that have prevailed for years stay in place….and their complaints are often bitter and biting.

    In fact, I often say that the job of the Elders is to protect the 90% of folks from the 10% who don't want change. Unfortunately, they often do the opposite in an effort to promote "peace". (read…conflict avoidance)

  6. Guy says:

    John,

    i have to say i've witnessed both sides. Our congregation has recently acquired new members because of a local congregation whose more radically liberal members have insisted on getting their own way.

    i think it's not a matter of whether it's more notorious among liberals or conservatives, but among anyone who values their preferences above people–that's a divisive situation regardless of whether those preferences are "liberal" or "conservative" in content.

    –Guy

  7. Weldon says:

    Now, great truths can be taught in a moderate church, and one of them is submission to the body and the over-arching importance of unity. However, in my experience, these truths only get taught to the more progressive members.

    Presently, my disagreement with some of my church’s traditional orthodoxies is being handled in this way. All of our elders (three of them) know about my more progressive views and everything is completely fine as long as I keep things under wraps. (i.e. I don’t discuss, act upon or otherwise bring up my “privately held” beliefs.) The contention is that should I do otherwise I would be violating the concepts taught in Romans 14:15-16. I agree with this to an extent – I could conceive of a situation wherein discussing my views of (for example) instrumental music could potentially undermine the faith of a new believer. But this seems to mean that I should practice discernment about who I engage in such discussions – not that the conversation should be altogether stigmatized. My church is conservative, but there is so much potential –
    how do we get to the point where conversations can begin?

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    I have to admit that every congregation is different. There are conservative congregations that act like progressives, and progressive congregations that act like conservatives. There are churches that are theologically conservative (instrumental music damns) but which aren't afraid to bring in contemporary a cappella music. There are congregations that are theologically progressive (instrumental music does not damn) but which prefer a more traditional approach to doing church.

    The problem I describe arises principally when the division in the church is theological. If you blend those who see change as damning with those who don't, they'll eventually want to go in different directions and the church will fall apart.

    The solution is to teach grace. Politics may hold it together for a while, but you can't put new wine in old wineskins. You can deal with disagreements over worship if neither side sees worship opinions as salvation issues. Love will see to it — but love won't cure a fear that agreeing to a given change will damn. Only grace will fix that one.

  9. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i was recently speaking with a professor who said he had finally succumbed to joining the Roman Catholic church because he decided that was the only way to have both truth and unity. i'm not saying his judgment was correct, but isn't that same tension the puzzle faced by current CoC leaders? Trying to compare and weigh truth and unity as sometimes differing values? To what degree should i (or an elder) be willing to sacrifice my principles/convictions for the sake of keeping other people around? To what degree should i be willing to sacrifice having those people around me in order to maintain my principles/convictions? Is the basic question different than that?

    –Guy

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Weldon,

    I wish I had a good answer. Every church is different. I can only mention some thoughts that may help in some churches.

    1. Make yourself the most valuable member of the church. Teach, volunteer, lead, be the go-to guy, be a peacemaker. Demonstrate that your beliefs make for great church members.

    2. Encourage the elders (and men who will become elders in the future) to read material that explains your views well. Show them that your views are founded in scripture and not wild-eyed liberalism built on denying the Bible.

    3. Conservative elders and preachers have been lied to by the editors and told to believe that progressives ignore the Bible. Always argue from the Bible and only the Bible. The Bible is quite enough.

    4. Talk to the preacher. In many churches, the preacher rules the doctrinal roost.

    5. Don’t let doctrinal disputes become barriers to personal relationships. Be open, friendly, and loving especially to those who disagree with you. You can't teach love and unity without being a loving, uniting person.

    6. Pray. A lot.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    The Catholic solution to the truth/unity conundrum is an authoritarian decree from church authorities on countless questions. The Biblical solution is radically different.

    1. "Truth" is Jesus. The truth that sets us free is his work on the cross. The truth is the gospel.

    See the series "What Is Truth?" for a detailed scriptural defense of this view.

    2. We are united by the gospel, not by agreeing on musical styles or the name to hang on the church building.

    3. The gospel is what we must hear, believe, and confess to be saved: Jesus is Lord and Messiah. We repent because "faith" includes being faithful — not perfectly, by having a change of loyalties from ourselves and the world to Jesus.

    4. We receive baptism into Jesus, the Truth, not into a system of doctrinal positions. We are saved by Jesus, not a perfect ecclesiology.

    Therefore, we are united in church because we share a faith in/faithfulness to Jesus. Those who deny this unity commit the Galatian heresy and risk the curses announced in chapter 1.

    The reason unity is hard in church is because so many want to add additional "tests of fellowship" and "salvation issues." This is sin. The best response is loving, gentle correction.

    In my view, truth, as thus defined, is not compromiseable. We cannot teach that instrumental music or clapping or the NIV are fellowship issues, and good leaders do not allow such teaching. They may well allow those who think this to be members, but they can only allow gospel teaching.

    It's harder, of course, in a church transitioning away from legalism and toward truth. Many caught up in legalism will insist on having their way on an issue they see as a salvation issue.

    The leaders may well choose to yield to their scruples — but the wise leader does this only temporarily, seeing the problem as a teaching opportunity rather than a political problem. The goal has to be to unify the congregation under the banner of Christ — the truth — not to unite for the sake of unity.

    Galatians threatens damnation to those who find salvation by means other than faith in Jesus. Love compels us to teach those who misunderstand this — and we may well yield to their scruples for long enough to teach them better.

    But allowing them to remain in their error risks their very souls, as well as giving the most legalistic members of the church control over the Lord's congregation — and that's a very bad idea.

  12. K. Rex Butts says:

    There are changes that need to occur in every local congregation if it is to continue having a missional impact (or start having one). However, my experience as a minister thus far is that often the changes people want or don't want to occur in church have nothing to do with the mission of God. And that is what is so disheartening about the issue of change (or lack of)…too many consumers who think the church is a product.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  13. Jeff says:

    John, I didn't state an opinion, just a fact. There's nothing in my original comment to agree or disagree with.

    As someone above alluded to, the temptation to divisiveness is a human failing, not one inherent to either "conservative" or "liberal" points of view. Both can practice (and have at times) a "my way or the highway" doctrine on what even they view as non-essentials.

  14. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i'll try and take a look at the what-is-truth series relatively soon.

    Initially though, i don't see how "Jesus is Lord and Messiah" is somehow exempt from committing a person to certain doctrinal positions. The terms "Jesus," "Lord," and "Messiah" are just letters and sounds unless we put meanings to them. Once we put meanings to them, and teach those meanings, we're committed to certain doctrinal positions.

    "Jesus is Lord and Messiah" is not a problematic statement for Arians, Docetics, Adoptionists, Nestorians, Monophysites, Trinitarians, etc. But those individuals do not all have compatible understandings of the meanings of the terms you include in the "truth" and "gospel." All i'm saying is that i don't see how reducing things to "just the gospel" gets you out of committing to doctrinal positions and needing to use those doctrinal positions as fellowship markers. At best it gets you merely a smaller set of doctrinal positions to which one must commit than some people happen to think. So i don't see how this move gets you out of the truth-vs.-unity puzzle.

    –Guy

  15. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    I certainly agree that there are fellowship boundaries defined by doctrine. It's just that it's a much smaller set of doctrines that many think. Indeed, the set is so small the Bible frequently summarizes the requisite doctrinal stances as "faith" — meaning, of course, faith in Jesus that produces faithfulness to Jesus, who is the truth.

    I was just trying to suggest that there is no conflict between unity and truth, as the truth — Jesus and the gospel about Jesus — defines who is unified.

  16. Guy says:

    Jay,

    While that may be theologically true, there is still a formidable *practical* problem of unity and truth. (In fact, there may be two different problems.)

    Allow me the original brood i mentioned–docetics, arians, gnostics, and the like. These are all people who consider themselves Christians but who do not share the same understandings of the terms "Jesus," "Messiah," and "Lord" as you and i. Now if i've understood you right, you believe there is fact of the matter about those terms and their meanings. So the other groups of people who are committed to different meanings of those terms–do you simply deny they are Christians as they claim to be? Many people would say, sure, yeah, they're not Christians. Well, okay. That's fine. John seems to be on board with that approach when it came to the Gnostics.

    The trouble is, some of those people may very well be sitting in the pew next to you. While there are religious groups who have officially defined themselves by these certain differing views, there are also individuals peppered through multiple "orthodox" groups who don't personally hold the "orthodox" view of terms like "Jesus," "Messiah," or "Lord." (There are people, though sparce, with rogue Christologies even in the CoC.) So do you treat those people as brethren because they're in the same building as you? If so, then why not those people with similar views who are not in the same building? And if you do treat the guy in the pew next to you as a brother despite his mistaken view about the nature of Christ, then it's no longer the case that the "truth" defines who's "unified" in a practical sense.

    But suppose you think, no, that guy isn't your brother because he doesn't believe the truth. Then what's he doing next to you? What's he doing taking communion with you? What are you doing passing him the tray? What's he doing leading prayers or songs or scripture readings or teaching classes? If he's not your brother since he's not among the "unified-defined-by-the-truth," then why is he enjoying so much practical unity? If he's not a brother and he's allowed to lead the closing prayer, then why don't we let any unbeliever at all do the same?

    That's what i see as caching out the first sort of problem. i think though that there's a second.

    Even if you had everyone in theological agreement about the meaning of the terms "Jesus," "Messiah," and "Lord," how are you going to avoid drawing further lines on certain questions? How are you going to avoid division on some further matters? Sure you can avoid division regarding particular matters. But some issues seem to occupy a level of practical importance that gives them unavoidable divisive force.

    What is the minimum list of necessary beliefs/actions one must assent to/take in order to have been initially saved by the "truth"/"gospel"? What are the minimum requirements necessary for an individual to *continue* receiving the benefits of the gospel? These are questions investigating how and who the truth unifies. The point though is that the answers can begin to branch out from immediate issues regarding Christ's nature and history. Notice that now, once saved always saved vs. possibility of apostacy, sprinkling vs. immersion, et al–those discussions and their correct answers become matters of the "gospel."

    It's true that some differences may not effect practical unity; believing once-saved-always-saved may not effect one's general attitude or obedience or whatever. But some matters will; my brother just told me about some televangelist who's hyper-calvinist and teaches that the NT doesn't allow for the modern practice of any water baptism whatsoever. Then there's the minimal things a person must believe about baptism for it to be baptism at all.

    That all may still leave you with a shorter list of doctrinal-boundary-markers than, say, the ultra-conservative CoC, but answering those questions still seems to leave you with a significant list that excludes a tremendous amount of people who consider themselves "Christians."

    –Guy

  17. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    This is such a good question I really need to write a post or two on it. It's an area I've thought about but haven't really sorted all the way through — and writing is how I normally do that.

    If I've not gotten to it in the next month or so, bug me.

  18. Jerry Starling says:

    Guy,
    It seems to me that holding divergent doctrines does not challenge unity; it is insisting on one's own understanding that is a challenge to unity. Campbell and Stone held divergent doctrines – but considered each other as brethren.

    On a more personal level, I was happy to fellowship people who were part of the Discipling Movement – until they began to describe "their" congregations as "the only faithful churches." The same is true of those who are non-institutional. As long as they were willing to co-exist, we could have fellowship. When they demanded that their opinions be adopted by the entire church, they became guilty of the Galatian heresy.

  19. Guy says:

    Jerry,

    That may be the case for some doctrines. But what if the person next to holds the divergent doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah (perhaps the person next to you is Jewish). Obviously some diverging doctrine does effect unity. That was my point.

    –Guy

  20. Marcus says:

    Holding divergent doctrines does challenge unity my friend. Here is an example when you cannot have unity.

    You cannot have unity when you have believers who believes that one should be baptized like those on the day of Pentecost and throughout Acts etc, and other members who say no you got it wrong, your not informed and you are ignorant, you don't have to be baptized in water because God will baptize you with His Spirit when He is ready.

    You cannot have unity when you have believers who practice bapitsm for the remission of sins and you have others who don't practice it anymore.

  21. Alan says:

    Marcus,

    In order to have Christian unity, the people involved first have to be Christians. That includes believing in Jesus, repenting of sins, and being baptized. I'm not sure that means they have to understand every aspect of baptism alike. But I think it means they have to have been baptized for biblical reasons, and that they believed in Jesus and repented of their sins as prerequisites to baptism.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Having received the Holy Spirit I was filled with joy and was more than excited to be baptized. When God filled me with His Holy Spirit I was so filled with joy that I wanted to climb to a mountaintop and declare His glory to the world.

    I was baptized as Jesus said we should in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don’t believe a pool holds the Holy blood Jesus shed. I don’t believe being baptized can substitute what Jesus did on the cross. I don’t believe Jesus’ body that was tortured and the Holy blood He shed can be replaced.

    There are and will be plenty of people who say God isn’t with me that I have to do a righteous act that will make me worthy of His grace and mercy. I am not worthy of the grace and mercy He gives me. His perfect sinless life of righteousness that He gave at such a high price cannot be bought but only given as a gift to those who love Him. And I know I love Him with all my heart, soul, and mind.

    Grace and peace

  23. stan says:

    A qoute from one of my forefathers comes to mind:

    "But our conciousness of forgivenss is not made to proceed from any inward impulses, voices, or operations, either instantaneous or gradual, but from a surer and more certain foundation — the testimony of God addressed to our ears. If operations, impulses, or feelings, were to be the basis of our conviction, it would be founding the most important of all knowledge upon the most uncertain of all foundations. The heart of man is deceitful above all things;'and' He that trusts in his own heart, is a fool."

    "For example, I belive the testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth in the apostolic import of it. I then feel myself commanded to be immersed for the forgiveness of my sins. I arise and obey. I then receive it, and am assured of it, because God cannot deceive. Thus I walk by Faith — not by feeling."

    Campbell the Younger

  24. Anonymous says:

    Stan said:

    "I then feel myself commanded to be immersed for the forgiveness of my sins. "

    "Thus I walk by Faith — not by feeling."

  25. Stan says:

    The point Campbell made was that "feeling" you were saved or filled with the Spirit is a feeling that is not trusttworthy. One's trust should be in the Word . . . not in a feeling that they have received the Holy Spirit..

  26. Anonymous says:

    I never said I had a feeling I received the Holy Spirit. I was joyful I had been saved.

  27. stan says:

    Anonymous, you stated,
    "Having received the Holy Spirit I was filed with joy and was more than excited to be baptized."

    Sounds like you had a feeling that you were filled with the Holy Spirit to me.

    And maybe you were my friend.

    How did you know that you were filed with the Holy Spirit if it was not from a feeling? Did you have a converstation with the Lord?

    Just wondering.

  28. Anonymous says:

    John 20:29 “Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

  29. stan says:

    Absolutely. I believe what the Lord has told me even though I have not seen the risen Lord. I trust in the "testimony of God addressed to our ears." I do not trust in anything else. Only the Lord is trustworthy.

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