[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.]
Some 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.