Now, nearly all churches are political in that nearly all church leaders sometimes make decisions to do or not do something because of congregational attitudes rather than because it’s what the leaders consider best.
For example, an eldership may decide that they don’t want to appoint deacons any more. The church will freak out if they appoint women — although the early church clearly did and even though Restoration leaders have supported ordaining women consistently for two centuries. Appointing men, the elders fear, will offend women who often have greater responsibilities than some of the deacons have, not to mention offending single and childless men. But is it really worth the fight — and loss of members — to announce the end of the deacon program?
If the elders decide to continue to ordain exclusively male deacons even though they believe the scriptures would permit female deacons and even though they believe ordaining solely male deacons will hurt efforts to convert the lost, they’ve made a political decision. It wasn’t for the sake of scripture or mission. It was for the sake of encouraging people who poorly understand the scriptures to remain members.
Ahh … and there’s the rub. You see, political decisions are nearly always dishonest. The elders won’t out-and-out lie, but they’ll leave the impression that they agree with the traditional Church of Christ view on deacons — which is not true. They could announce to the church that they’re keeping deacons but don’t think they have to or should — which would be honest but also would risk losing members. And it might create problems way out of proportion to the benefit of speaking the truth on deacons. Maybe. It might.
And so church leaders do this all the time. When the leaders think changing the church name would help grow the church and bring the lost to Jesus but refuse to change the church’s name for fear of how the members (or sister congregations) would react, it’s a political decision. It’s may even be dishonest — unless the elders tell the church that they would prefer to change the name but have decided not to make that decision for the sake of peace within the church.
In fact, back a couple of years ago when the elders spent the summer Sunday school hour taking questions from the church, we often found ourselves having to decide whether to be honest about our beliefs — and we chose the honest path. Ask me whether I think it would be sin to have female deacons, and I’ll tell you that it is no sin — right there in Bible class in the church building and everything. It was cathartic — and the church largely took it well — although a few people may have left over it. You never really know.
Part of the problem is that when you say, “I think it’s okay for women to be deacons but we’ve chosen not to ordain women for the sake of members who would find that unscriptural,” some people take that as a Rom 14 sort of thing — which it can be — while others figure it’s just a matter of time before women are ordained, and so they pack their bags and leave just because it may happen in 10 or 20 years. Remember: people fill gaps in their knowledge with their fears — usually in the most pathological way possible.
One solution would be to announce that women will never, ever be ordained as deacons, but no eldership can make that promise. We all die (or retire) and can’t speak for the next generation of elders. Nor can we predict the movement of the Spirit. And so this creates a knowledge gap — which means some members will assume female deacons are just over the horizon, and so they will pre-emptively leave.
But people have to be strongly convicted on an issue to leave over the mere fear that it might happen while they are still alive and living in town — but I’ve seen it happen. Hence, the extremely strong temptation to play politics and let the anti-female-deacon members attend under the illusion that the elders are opposed to female deacons. And so the elders, knowing it’s bad for the church and the cause of Christ, ordain yet another generation of male-only deacons, perpetuating a false doctrine disagreed with by most Restoration Movement leaders and all the early church fathers — for the sake of peace in our time.
This exact problem pops up all the time. I mean, the name of the church, the use of an instrument, clapping, male communion passers (there must be a better word), etc., etc. are examples of issues that must be addressed over and over. And the truth is that Churches of Christ would likely be far more attractive to the lost if they dropped the denominational name, used instruments, clapped, and let the women help pass the grape juice. But elders routinely pick internal peace over saving the lost.
Now, another name for a political church is a “moderate” or “mainstream” Church of Christ. Almost all are political. Some have leaders who are honest about their views (I obviously have no problem sharing my doctrinal positions even when the church’s practices don’t line up with my views — and it’s rarely been a problem. But I’ve also lost friends for being so open in my teaching.)
Being a moderate (or political) church doesn’t work. It might work for a long time, but it ultimately catches up with you. In a political church, the elders can’t teach a better doctrinal understanding — certainly not from the pulpit. And so the members never receive instruction on why their views are wrong. And so they never change. And that makes the church into an unstable isotope. At some point, it has to throw off enough beta particles to become a different, more stable element. Or it could explode.
Here are the possible outcomes:
- The conservatives could win. They could push for a preacher who supports their traditional views, and they could work to keep any progressive leader from becoming an elder. After all, they’ve never heard a sermon or a Bible class lesson telling them they’re wrong.
- The progressives could win. They could get their kind of preacher and their kind of elders. They’ve never been taught that sometimes the strong have to submit to the weak — because that would require the preacher to call the conservatives “weak.”
- The elders could be honest with the church, tell them what direction they’d like to lead the church, and gently and lovingly teach grace and mission and how to better read the Bible. Of course (and I speak from very painful experience), some people can hear 20 years of teaching on grace and mission and worship, etc. and still not be persuaded. Or they could be fully persuaded but unwilling to attend a church without the denominational name because of pressure from family.
- The church could split — or have a major exodus of members.
Here’s how it plays out. The church has a great preacher and lovely elders. The members have diverse views, but they stay together because they enjoy the preaching and have so many good friends at church. Some have been there for three generations.
Then the great preacher retires. Or a couple of elders retire or die. And now the church has to pick their replacements. And there are no moderate preachers. I mean, they’re all either for or against instrumental music. They can’t be both. And the committee is going to ask — because both sides are tired of the compromises and rationalizations that make for a moderate Church of Christ. It’s time to finally pursue mission! Or to return to our roots!
The search committee likely has representatives from both factions, and they can’t agree on whom to hire. Or the next generation of elders is well known for wanting female deacons — or they don’t care but someone asked them about their “position on the issue,” and having said that they’d have no problem with female deacons, the conservatives fear a tidal wave of change.
And so someone is hired or ordained, half the church is unhappy, and with no real changes having been made at all, people start to leave. Oddly enough, the elders may find people leaving from both camps — because one side knows they’ve lost the power to control the outcome and the other side is afraid that, despite getting their choice in leadership, the church will continue to straddle the fence — and they’re tired of waiting for change. And so neither side is happy.
I can’t begin to count the churches I’ve seen fall apart when there was a change in leadership. It’s the nature of church politics. After all, the members are acting the way we taught them to act. We told them that if they’d complain about every piddling little change, there’d be no change. And so they complain. We told them that church is about getting your way. And so they expect to get their way. We told them that we’re not going to change because the time isn’t right. And so they expect change when the time is right.
GIGO. Garbage in; garbage out. Despite decades of diligent efforts to keep the church together, the fractures were never truly healed, and so, inevitably, the church splits — or loses nearly half its members to transfers.
Meanwhile, during these decades of diligent politics, the church has forgotten how to evangelize. Baptisms are low. Transfer growth may be good because the church has great children’s and teen programs — but there are very few baptisms except the members’ own children. And worse yet, most of those children don’t stay at church after they graduate. They don’t like politics and games. They’re all about authenticity. Because that’s what the teen minister and their parents taught them. They just don’t see it happening.