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.