Overseeing the Moderate Church: Part 3

Divided churchThis 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. But 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 has 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.

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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12 Responses to Overseeing the Moderate Church: Part 3

  1. Alan says:

    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.

    Traditional church of Christ teaching has primarily consisted of defending our borders — in other words, justifying why we are the true church and "the denominations" are not. The goals seem to be that members would not think of leaving and that non-complying opinions would not come in. That kind of teaching sets the stage for division over doctrinal disagreements within the church. It breeds intolerance. It becomes a habit, an addiction. Those who behave like that are so accustomed to it that they don't even recognize it when they do it. And they don't know how to do differently.

  2. Bob says:

    It seems to me to be a leadership problem. Most members will follow a true leader or leaders even if they don't agree on every point of so called doctrine.

    I have not seen too many succesfull business leaders in small or large corporations become elders. We elect folks as elders that are not good leaders, in fact most are inept at handling any type of problem.

    We have seen churches of Christ grow to as many as 1300, then because of a preacher problem or the buiiding of a fellowship hall, fall apart and never recover. All the mature well learned folks go to an independant or another church of Christ to their liking.

    it is well known in our community that the church of Christ can't stand prosperity. They by nature, want to figh tover nonesential doctrines rather than do evangelism or community outreach.

    There are so many PHD's amoung you that differ so radically I wonder what their motives rally are. As for our elders that is another question and I don't know the answer, We just don't love each other.

  3. mark says:

    In a age where the power of the church has been debunked and restorative models exploited is the plight of church really between radical extremes and goldilocks theology?

  4. Jack Exum Jr says:

    Jay,
    This is an excellent series… Especially is this lesson to the exact point that the church needs to consider.
    How many of us have sat and tried to counsel with a couple who have been married for some time, but come because they have problems they cannot either deal with or handle.
    Problems that have been considered by both, off limits, simply because of the inability to sit and talk and lay aside personality and deal with it.
    The church today has some who prefer to keep old fires going instead of sitting down and with an open bible and open mind, simply discuss it. Without getting upset, to voicing their views and the reasons for them, and with the heart of seeking to know the truth, to ask questions and take a look.
    What do we do when dealing with a couple who's marriage is in trouble because of things undiscussed for years, while knowing all the time that these things are 'eatting them up' inside.
    We encourage them to begin by really trying to listen… a skill that many times is woefully lacking. Listen, not for a time to interrupt and 'throw a verbal left hook', but listen to understand… WOW. Who knows they might even begin at least to understand, or see the other person's real feelings. Who knows, maybe even grow closer through the whole process, of simply communicating.
    In counselling, of course there is alot of blaming each other… "You this…." "You that….." It's truly hard to get the couple to stop, and to start just trying to listen for feelings, and hurts. Harder still to get each to begin to admit their own mistakes which have added to the whole mess.
    But when they do.. then walls start crumbling.
    So why can brethren not start to treat each other like the brothers and sisters they are in Christ and because of the work He did? Why can we not use the same methods used in counselling two that simply need help to get the communication going, and the healing started, and forgiveness given, so the love that they normaly would have can be rekindled?
    I believe they can. But the one's who would rather keep the couple fighting, and disagreeing, or even come to a divorce need to see what they are doing.
    You may say there is a need for "defending the faith" and blasting the 'false teacher'… Yes there is a time for that, but why not try and see if they are really false teachers' trying to hurt the sheep, or if they are sincere lovers of Jesus with a different interpretation or point.
    Agreeing to disagree is still ok. Asking sincere questions, and looking for truth… still ok.
    Grace and love indeed can solve alot of the bad feelings, and help heal and restore, and unite a giant that can change the world.
    The church does not need 'purging' as much as it needs healing. God is Judge. If there are weeds among the wheat, then perhaps we should wait till the harvest, let the Harvester decide and focus on the fields that are white. Perhaps we need to be about our Father's business… and let the world see what real Christianity is…
    Call me whatever you want, but I truely am concerned about the continuous dividing that cripples the work which we are called to.
    How far does grace reach? The word "uttermost" almost scares us. Some are so scared that grace will be abused, or that some will 'get away with something' that preachers are scared to bring this out from the 'moth balls' and look at it.
    But brethren, this grace is what we desperately need.
    Jay is exactly right. We must learn about God's revolutionary grace, and teach it. We have a long way to go, but the more I study His grace, the more amazed and grateful I am.
    Thanks again Jay,
    Jack Exum Jr.

  5. Neal Roe says:

    Jay, unfortunately this is a timely post. I am in trouble with my Elders and some number of my Sunday school class. In last Sunday's class I refuted the idea of our needing to "lust and covet for God". Three of us in the class upheld the idea that though the intent of "desiring strongly" God is wanted, the use of the words are out of step with the understanding of people today. Some number of the class either went to or were seen by our Elders and reported that I was angry and disruptive.

    My Elders spoke to me alone Wednesday night asking for my side. I told them I have no side but that I would tell them what I experienced and saw in the class. It went down hill from there. Both Elders brought up an incident from many weeks ago where I had disagreed with the Preacher in a class. I went to the preacher that same night and apologized, that I disagreed with the idea and not him personally.

    I had been scheduled to teach a class Sunday nights but declined at this point because I felt that there were too many people talking about this event and that I did not feel comfortable being in front of the class. One of the Elders stated that this action proved that I was in fact angry. I made no defense except to say that I was hurt by their not coming directly to me before gathering all of the testimony against me. We parted with no sense of encouragement.

    How can we confront disagreements when we are so adept at taking sides? How can we learn to discern and handle the Word when we are not allowed to disagree openly? There are only three uses of Greek that are on par with Lust in connection to our desire for God every other use is of a carnal and sinful nature. It just did not make sense. But don't disagree.

  6. Jack Exum Jr says:

    Very true Alan. It takes time to get brethren to even trust themselves with each other, (like the Geico CEO falling back on the Gecko)… or something like that.
    But were working on it.
    Jack

  7. Joe Hegyi III says:

    Jay:

    I, unfortunately, grew up in one of those congregations you spoke of with the politically adept minister. And when he died things went downhill fast. They have split and then those that split then split the congregation they left us to go to and then wanted to come back to our congregation.

    There truly is no room for open disagreement in traditional Churches of Christ. The saddest part is that we don't even realize there is another option. We don't even see that we could accept one another in love and stop being suspicious.

    How can a fellowship of churches continue much longer with this as their central, foundational belief?

  8. Alan says:

    Neal wrote:

    How can we confront disagreements when we are so adept at taking sides?

    There is a culture of intolerance in the church — intolerance for disagreement. Disagreement is scary. People are afraid of where it might lead, and they want to eliminate the disagreement so they can return to the comfort of uniformity as quickly as possible. They see the elders as having the responsibility to purge the disagreements, by all means necessary.

    Those are real emotions and are not motivated by evil intentions. Elders and ministers should teach the congregation a better way to deal with disagreements. But often they don't know a better way either.

    Knowing this, one has to carefully choose when and where (and how, and whether) to voice a disagreement. That's not a great situation to be in, but it's often a fact. Sometimes it really is better to keep what you think about a matter between yourself and God, because you consider the likely outcome of not doing so. Sometimes it is better to hold your thoughts and to speak to an elder or minister in private about it.

    Most of us probably need to grow in our discernment about what is best in situations like that. I know I do.

  9. Neal Roe says:

    Thank you, Alan. I chose poorly this time. Your encouragement and guidance is appreciated more than you know and will be followed prayerfully. Thank God for His grace.

  10. Jack Exum Jr says:

    Hey guys,
    I found a book of interest in all this which is very helpful. "The Crux of the matter"(Crisis, Tradition and the future of the COC). It is the first in a series (I hope) of the "Heart of the restoration series" by the ACU Press. I am not finished with it yet, but it is helpful in further understanding our roots, and how to move forward. Three wirters put it together, Jeff Childers, Douglas Foster, and Jack Reese. Anyway, check it out. It's worth it.
    Jack

  11. Nick Gill says:

    Jack, that series is now completed as a four-volume set, and it is indeed excellent.

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