Tulsa Lectures: First and Third Class, Power

Let’s talk a little more about power.

In the secular world, most fights are about money, sex, or power. I asked the elders at Tulsa what the church fights they’d seen are usually about — not what those involved say they are about but what they really are about.

The readily answered: power.

Take a typical church split. It’s likely either over the choice of preacher (who gets their way, who gets to decide) or worship style (who gets to set the worship style for the church). In both cases, the congregation will often perceive themselves to be fighting over doctrinal truth, but in reality, the reason they can’t work it out is they are fighting over power: who gets to make the decisions, who gets his way.

This is often unconscious to those involved. Rarely would either side admit to itself that it is fighting for control. In the Churches of Christ, we nearly always characterize our fights as doctrinal. After all, that’s how you win.

But Baptists and other denominations fight and even split over the very same things — the choice of preacher or worship style — but they don’t have a theology, such as CENI, that makes it so easy to characterize any fight as over doctrine. And yet they fight, use many of the same tactics (threaten to leave, to withhold contributions; insist on putting their man in the eldership) to gain the same outcomes — and in other denominations, the identical fights are obviously about personal preference and power.

We are fooling ourselves when we suppose that our motives are higher and purer. They just aren’t.

Now, we need to refine “power” just a little bit. Sometimes it’s more about whether a member or group of members matters to the leadership. A decision is made without advance consultation with a group that considers themselves to have influence over the leadership, and so, to re-assert their influence (informal veto power), they pitch a fit, to affirm that they are not to be trifled with and may not be ignored.

Some older members feel entitled to veto the decisions of the elders, because they have so much time and money invested in the congregation. Some older members will actively campaign against the elders just to demonstrate that they should not be ignored!

Of course, no one admits to himself that he is motivated by lust for power. Rather, she will see herself as nobly representing an under-appreciated segment of the congregation. Or as standing for truth against error — speaking for a silent majority. Indeed, most in this position imagine that the vast majority of the church agrees with her, because all her friends do. Little does she realize how far out of touch with the entire congregation she often is.

So to go back to one of the questions with which I began this series —

Congregation A is the result of a church plant, about five years ago. They rent space in a shopping center. They struggle with their budget. Their members are nearly all new converts. They have a few members with more experience, either from transfers or from the original plant team, but mostly they are new Christians with very little experience and training. On average, they are very young, with lots of families and very few retirees.

Congregation B is the same size. It’s been around for 50 years. They own a very nice building that’s paid for. They make budget easily. They have members who’ve walked with Jesus for 50, 60, and even 70 years. Many members are retired, but they also have younger members with families.

Why did the elders say that congregation A will grow more slowly than congregation B despite having fewer resources and less mature members? Because many of the members of congregation will have a sense of entitlement — that is, they will believe that the elders and other leaders may not act contrary to their interests. Indeed, they’ve begun to believe that the church is there to serve them!

Thus, in their minds, the worship service should most please the oldest, longest-term members. The preacher should be selected to please the oldest, longest-term members. The sermon topics should be chosen to appeal to the oldest, longest-term members. After all, the oldest, longest-term members have the most time, energy, and money invested! They’ve paid their dues. It’s their church. (See how very capitalistic this thinking is? It’s about owning the body of Christ!)

And this attitude kills churches. It kills denominations. But for the continuous intervention of God to preserve his Kingdom, it would kill Christianity. You see, it’s the most un-Christian attitude possible.

And yet, it’s an attitude that elders tolerate, even find inevitable. But it’s sin. It’s exactly wrong because it’s exactly opposite the true nature of Jesus.

This explains the second question as well.

Think of your own congregations. Think of the young, middle aged, and older members. Among those members, which ones are the most selfish, the most self-centered, and the most narcissistic?

Why did the elders answer saying: the oldest members? Because they’re the members who’ve been there long enough to feel entitled.

What’s the cure?

(Gal 2:19-20 ESV)  19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

“Crucified” in v. 20 is literally co-crucified: “I have been co-crucified with Christ.” What does that mean?

We teach a Reformation-inspired version of the gospel, emphasizing justification — initial salvation — nearly to the exclusion of all else. Scot McKnight refers to this as the “soterian gospel,” that is, a gospel that only speaks to forgiveness — the part we include in our marketing materials. We read “my sins have been crucified with Christ.” But Paul says “I” have been co-crucified. I died on the cross with Jesus. I no longer live. Rather, Jesus lives in me, and therefore, my new life is not mine. It belongs to Jesus.

What happened to my wants, my desires, my nostalgia, my tastes? Well, they were crucified and buried — and they weren’t resurrected. They died in the baptistry.

Paul returns to the theme a few chapters later.

(Gal 5:19-21 ESV)  19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“Enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  envy” … It sounds like church! You see, we tolerate the works of the flesh in church as perfectly normal. Indeed, we teach works of the flesh by affirming and ratifying those members who act this way. In fact, we effectively make those of our members with the most worldly attitudes de facto elders by allowing them to veto decisions for purely personal, selfish, entitled reasons! We reward sin!

Paul urges —

(Gal 5:22-25 ESV)  22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

“Kindness” translates a word referring to generosity of spirit — a willingness to let the other person win for the greater good. “Gentleness” includes the ideas of courtesy and considerateness.

What did we learn about peace?

(Rom 12:18 ESV) 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

It’s up to me — and my attitude does not depend on the other person. It depends on me.

Now, having said all that, reality is always much more complex than it at first appears. Yes, we church leaders have managed to create a class of entitled members, which will kill our congregations without a doubt. But, no, they are not terrible,  horrible people. We don’t need to run them off. Rather, we need to lead.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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21 Responses to Tulsa Lectures: First and Third Class, Power

  1. Because we all fall short, there is no solution for this except to continue to proclaim Jesus as our model. This problem resolves itself as we become more like Jesus, but like the concept of limits in Calculus, we will never actually reach that point.

  2. Rich says:

    I’m glad to see the admission that the root cause for splits and splinters within the cofC is the seeking of power rather than the practice of CENI. When other groups have the exact same divison problems it shows that ours is not really due to poor doctrine. And thus, changing our doctrine will never truly solve our issues.

    Now, the real question: Is all the energy, time and rectoric attacking CENI and other cofC doctrines really a smoke screen to cover up the underlying needs for power?

    Is the call for change really a coup to transfer (change) those who are in power?

    Good points to ponder in this series of posts.

  3. Charles McLean says:

    Thanks, Jay, for pointing out the proprietary nature of many congregations. This is the reason behind my referring to them as “religion clubs”. These clubs are owned by certain members of those clubs, who decide what the club rules and identity and program will be.

    The fact that there are other serious problems besides the poisonous hermeneutic called CENI is not a valid defense of CENI. To leave that issue as the unchallenged status quo is to chase the arsonist in lieu of putting out the fire, rather than in addition to it. It is to state truthfully that “guns don’t kill people, people do!” and to use that justification for handing the robber back his Glock.

  4. Rich says:

    My comments are not intended to be a 100% defense of CENI (especially our human marred execution of the principle). They are intended to point to the concept that the elimination of CENI is not the solution and will not make us more Christ like in the long run.

    Some personal opinions concerning CENI: C is hopefully a given for us all. We must follow what is explicitly stated. The fact that the Bible is not all a book of law but rather full of examples of living the Chrisitan life elevates the importance of E. The concept of NI is valid for we need to use the reasoning God has given us for understanding his avenue of communcation to us. However, I have seen many abuses in its execution (this fits the guns in the wrong hands analogy given earlier).

  5. Jerry says:

    I’ve often heard it said that the most effective lie is a partial truth. What you say about CENI is true. God does give us commands, which we are to obey. There are examples, which we should follow. There are inferences, which we should make.

    Yet, when we pretend that these are “objective” methods of interpreting the Bible, we deceive ourselves. There are commands we need not obey – or at least those we conveniently ignore. There are definitely examples we should not follow. And, not all inferences are “fairly made” from the text of what the Scripture actually says.

    So, CENI alone is an inadequate way of reading the Bible. If we ignore context, we will nearly always misapply what is said. If we forget that Jesus said of the Scriptures, “these are they that testify of me,” we are in deep trouble. If we read looking for something other than Jesus, we are not reading for the right reasons.

    Can CENI be helpful? Yes, it can. Is it an infallible “method” for interpreting the Bible? No, it is not. Has it been abused? To ask that question is to answer it. It has been abused time after time in absurd ways – and that by many who “are reputed to be pillars among” us.

    We need to be like the noble people of Beria and always “search the Scriptures daily, to see if these things are so.”

    One of the great principles of understanding the Scripture is given as his final “rule” for understanding the Bible by Alexander Campbell. That is to come within “understanding distance.” He then described that as that circle whose center is the Lord and whose circumference is humility. If we will center our study on Him with humble hearts, we may make some mistakes – but we will get the important thing right.

  6. Rich says:


    You make some excellent comments. I especially agree with “CENI alone is a inadequate way of reading the Bible.” Yes, although CENI represents the loyalty and complete desire to follow God’s will as did Christ, it alone, doesn’t include the inspiration, hope, service, love and compassion as demonstrated by Christ.

    This blog, and many others, have claimed CENI as the root cause of our issues within churches of Christ. People may feel that as true. There may be some instances when improper execution of the principle has caused problems. But CENI is not the overarching problem.

    I think Jay is finally touching on the real issue in this series of posts.

    We can now begin discussing who has the biggest power hunger issues: those who historically influenced the way things are now or those who want to change everything to their liking.

  7. Ray Downen says:

    Rich defends CENI. It cannot be defended as a proper way of understanding Jesus or His apostles. It was a good way of understanding the law of Moses. It is in no sense a helpful or good way of looking at the Way of Jesus Christ. The apostles didn’t set up a book of law. So searching for laws in apostolic doctrine is a foolish waste of time. CENI is looking for laws. The laws created by lovers of CENI are responsible for the many sects who can agree on only one of the laws they’ve created. All of them respect their anti-instrument law. But after that, the separations and dislocations are many. They have ruined the reputation of the good name, “Church of Christ.” But they all agree that God hates musical instruments and those He has gifted with the talent to use them. Or am I exaggerating?

  8. Rich says:


    My main message is that the preponderance to blame our issues on CENI is unfounded. This is evidenced by the myriad of other groups/organizations who splinter and divide but do not use CENI. Jay’s message below actually (also) applies to the progressive agenda:

    But Baptists and other denominations fight and even split over the very same things — the choice of preacher or worship style — but they don’t have a theology, such as CENI, that makes it so easy to characterize any fight as over doctrine. And yet they fight, use many of the same tactics (threaten to leave, to withhold contributions; insist on putting their man in the eldership) to gain the same outcomes — and in other denominations, the identical fights are obviously about personal preference and power.

  9. Charles McLean says:

    “They are intended to point to the concept that the elimination of CENI is not the solution and will not make us more Christ like in the long run.”
    If a man is bleeding from ten gunshot wounds, a responsible physician will treat them all, instead of trying to find an excuse to leave one bleeding wound untreated because another wound is slightly closer to the heart.

  10. Charles McLean says:

    “We can now begin discussing who has the biggest power hunger issues: those who historically influenced the way things are now or those who want to change everything to their liking.”
    Now Rich wants us to leave the real problem and get into a finger-pointing contest to determine which side of the argument has more control issues than the other side. This is the “You can’t correct me, because he’s just as bad as me!” defense. My kids do this on occasion, and it doesn’t fly for nine year olds, either.

  11. Doug says:

    Rich, the Independent Christian Church doesn’t practice CENI and while they have had church splits due to power struggles just like any denomination, they do not consider other Christians out of fellowship because of perceived commands, examples or inferences. In general this branch of the Restoration Movement enjoys better fellowship with each other than do the Churches of Christ because they operate under a normative principle of worship and do not look to CENI for worship practices. I am not saying they are right and the CofC is wrong but the evidence shows that they have a better fellowship without CENI.

  12. Gregory Alan Tidwell says:

    Leadership is in short supply. In the church, as in government and in business, the lack of leadership hinders our success and limits the good we can accomplish.

    Often, when faced with failure, we seek an easy scapegoat rather than dealing with the hard task of owning up to problems in our own thoughts and in our own actions. We imagine if only we had more resources, or if only we knew the latest methods, or if only we were free from certain obstacles, then we would succeed. Blaming circumstances, however, misses the mark. We must look deeper. We must look at ourselves and, with honesty, face our own failures.

    The problems we face as Christians do not come primarily from external threats or from a lack of resources. God has given us everything we need to succeed. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)

    What an overwhelming abundance we have received as Christians! Yet, do we “abound in every good work”? In many circumstances the work of the church is abandoned rather than abounding. We can inventory wonderful opportunities, but, too often, we see opportunities pass us by.

    God has provided everything we need for success. Yet, we are failing to succeed. Our failure comes from mishandling the talents, resources and opportunities God has provided. We are failing as stewards, which also means we are failing as leaders, for all leadership is stewardship.

    We have forgotten how to lead, in part, because we have forgotten how to relate to one another, and we have forgotten how to relate to one another because we have forgotten how to relate to God. “What ever disunites man from God,” Edmund Burke observed, “also disunites man from man.”

    We see effects of disunity in problems facing our society. The disintegration of the American family, the fear of violent crime, the uncertainty of economic change, and the increasing polarization of the political process, all spring from the same source. The problems we face as a nation are symptoms of selfishness working against the common good. We are no longer looking out for each other because we are no longer looking up to God.

    The effects of disunity are also present in problems we face in the church. The travesty of inane bickering, the lack of doctrinal convictions, the moral looseness, and the pervasive apathy plaguing our congregations, all spring from the same source. The problems we face in the church are symptoms of selfishness that neither honors God nor serves other people. Selfishness corrupts the freedom we have in Christ, as the apostle Paul warned:

    For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)

    Historically, people realized civilization requires restraint, and they understood the main task of leadership is to subordinate selfish interest for the common good. In contrast, the modern “do your own thing” approach weakens the social fabric and, specifically, makes real leadership impossible.

    From a standpoint of selfishness, there can be manipulation and intimidation, but there cannot be real leadership.

    Leadership requires a shared commitment to a common goal. This shared commitment binds people together and provides a framework within which leadership can occur. Within the church, our shared commitment should be a shared submission to the will of God.

    People seek out positions of power and influence in the church for a wide range of reasons. Some, selfishly, seek power in order to advance their own private agendas.

    A self-centered approach, however, undercuts the very idea of meaning in religion. Exercising power in the church for superficial reasons ends up being manipulation rather than leadership. Christian leadership never seeks merely to please ourselves; rather, Christian leadership has as its primary mission to be pleasing to God. That is to say, an authentic Christian leader believes and obeys what God says in Scripture.

    Authentic Christian leadership presupposes an authentic Christian commitment shared by the Christian leader and by those who follow. Without such a commitment Christian leadership cannot exist.

  13. Be A Berean says:

    Using CENI…God never commands Christians to not sing with music.

    Many strict Jews use Ceni to interpret Scripture, which leads them to have Shabbat elevators that don’t have any buttons to use. Being commanded not to work on Shabbat and God never said they could work an elevator therefore God forbid them to.

  14. How interesting , Jay, the consensus that most church splits are over (1) who will be the single person to do 95% of the speaking and (2) who will govern the style for the rest of the assembly. Judging by 1 Cor 14, perhaps this is a confirmation that elders shouldn’t be in the business of telling folks that their song can’t be shared in the assembly or that if they have something to say, then they should write it down for someone who is approved to speak (unless we’re speaking of silencing false doctrine).

    If what you’ve found is true, then could we eliminate almost all splits if elders would allow in our assemblies what scripture calls them to allow rather than choosing winners and losers?

    Of course, this may only be my twisted CENI and desire for power.

  15. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I don’t think the cure for power-lust is a change in ecclesiology. There will always be winners and loser so long as there is a sense of entitlement. If it’s not about music and preachers, it will be about the time we meet or the choice of grape juice vs. wine or the preferred brand of wine.

    It’s inevitable in any community that choices have to be made that the community must submit to in order to remain in community. (All parents have experienced this in family life. Choices must be made, and not everyone gets his or her way.)

    The cure is not to give everyone a turn. The cure is submission to God’s mission. We have to learn to think as missionaries. We must re-imagine our congregations as church plants. We aren’t here to serve the members. The members are here to serve others.

    When the mission is paramount and the comfort and pleasures of the members are subordinated to the mission, then the squabbling ends.

    Can you imagine a missionary church planting team fighting over who gets to pick the hymns? Or who preaches? No, they’ll decide these things based on what serves the mission of the congregation — to reach the community in which they’ve chosen to work. Anyone who joins a mission team sacrifices his taste in music (and food and career) on the altar of evangelism.

    But our established congregations are too busy serving their own members to actually make a sacrifice for the lost. In such a setting, the planting team — which would presumably be far more mature in the faith than the other members — will submit their preferences and tastes to the newest members and the visitors, because they take FAR greater joy in building the kingdom than having their own turn.

    The result is that EVERYONE wins, because the more mature receive the greatest possible joy — the sheer delight of participating in God’s mission and seeing the seed they’ve planted spring forth in new life. The price of giving up the songs of their childhood is trivial — entirely forgotten in the joy of seeing God at work bringing new souls into the kingdom.

    And the visitors and new converts delight in an assembly crafted to speak the gospel in a language they understand. Because they understand the music and the words and the iconography, they can appreciate and delight in the story of the gospel they are being taught.

    But in the US, in established churches, we perversely insist that visitors learn our language, learn our music, learn our symbolism, and become like us so that they can appreciate the gospel we teach. Jesus, however, surrendered heaven so that he could become like us and teach us gospel in terms we could understand — even at the cost of his life.

    Therefore, I have little interest in taking turns. I don’t want a turn. I want to see the lost saved and the immature brought to maturity. And if it costs me my musical taste, well, I have iTunes. The assembly is about serving others.

  16. … but Paul was passionate for all our concerns when he instructed, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (1 Cor. 14: 31).

    I think we all yearn for a piece of that. Let it be.

  17. Charles McLean says:

    The travesty of inane bickering, the lack of doctrinal convictions, the moral looseness, and the pervasive apathy plaguing our congregations, all spring from the same source.
    I cannot disagree with this statement, but will say that I don’t see anyone jumping up to accept responsibility for their own portion. This is just more, “Look how bad they are and how much THEY need to change!” Nobody here is saying, “I am morally loose, foolish and argumentative, doctrinally screwy, or apathetic.” God be merciful to them, those sinners…

    I would love to hear more about “Here is what I (not ‘we’, but I) should do differently!” Jay’s posts are more in this vein than most that I hear.

  18. Jerry says:

    Charles wrote: “I would love to hear more about ‘Here is what I (not ‘we’, but I) should do differently’!

    Perhaps what we all need is long seasons of soul-changing prayer. I remember when I was a student, a large group of us had a prayer session that lasted from 8pm to 4am when we all ran out of prayer and went to have breakfast together before going to bed. Early in the evening, the prayers were, “Lord, forgive us for we have sinned.” About midnight, the prayers changed to “Forgive me, for I have sinned.” About 2 am, the prayers changed again. Now they were, “Lord, forgive me for I am proud… lazy… etc.”

    The longer and more fervently we prayed, the more personal our prayers became – and the more transparent we became in baring our souls before God and each other.

  19. Tim Archer says:


    I’m an ardent critic of the use of CENI as a hermeneutic… but I agree with a lot of what you have to say. CENI is not the cause of division in churches of Christ. Divisions are almost always driven by personal issues, not doctrinal issues. People who love one another find a way to reach an agreement; those who don’t, divide.

    CENI neither obliges us to divide nor keeps us from dividing.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  20. Rich says:


    Thanks for trying to build a bridge rather than a wall. I can take a lesson from that at times.

    God bless,

  21. Mark says:

    Earlier, the following was posted: “Leadership is in short supply. In the church, as in government and in business, the lack of leadership hinders our success and limits the good we can accomplish.”

    I think many more leaders exist than most people would care to admit. I don’t think leadership is in short supply. I think many people want to see it in short supply to justify retaining power. If it is in short supply, it was likely caused by potential leaders being shut down and/or shut out for being different (e.g. young, unmarried, female, or some combination of those). This leads to “I give up” or “forget it, let them sink.” I think that when elders and those in power refuse to see potential in someone because the new person might see a problem differently or not handle a situation in exactly the same way as they would have, then the elder tells himself that this new group can’t be trusted and/or allowed to have any power. I know plenty of people who felt that churches/civic organizations/political parties did not want them in any capacity save donor and so they have left and are now betting against the organization and wondering how long it will last once nature starts running her course.

    It is admirable that you all talk about prayer, and there is a time for everything (Proverbs). Sometimes the praying needs to stop and the action needs to start.

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