Advice to a New Elder: The Political Church, Part 1

shepherd3This is not about the church-state issues. It’s about internal church politics. By “politics” I mean doing things to please a constituency rather than because it’s what you think God wants.

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.

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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.

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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19 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: The Political Church, Part 1

  1. John McAfee says:

    Ouch.

  2. Mark says:

    The first rule of non-profit fundraising is to never upset a large donor. This seems to be how elderships function at the end of the day. Thus as long as the major donors are satisfied, no one else is of concern. Policy can be crafted and preachers hired/fired to keep the donors happy, even at the expense of losing the next 1-2 generations of cofC members (and at the extreme, followers of Christianity). As I was told, if you don’t donate (enough), you don’t have the right to comment.

  3. David Himes says:

    I’ve shared this post with the elders at the congregation where I worship. I believe several actions or decisions not to act, which they’ve determined in the past, closely match some of the thinking Jay has described here — and the outcomes and following the pattern Jay suspects.

    This has been one of the major failings of congregations of the Churches of Christ, over the long term.

  4. I once told an eldership that since being with them, for the first time, I had preached what people wanted to hear instead of what I honestly felt they needed to hear. Then I added, ‘But I’ve repented.’ Less than a year later, they gave me ‘the letter’ saying they didn’t want to continue our relationship. Political? I don’t know, and 30+ years later, I don’t really care. To me it is just sad when elder-preacher relations cannot be transparent and authentic.

  5. John McAfee says:

    I would be appreciative of hearing comments from elders on this matter, from those who’ve had to make the decisions that impact their congregations. Do elders reflect the personality of the congregation, or vice versa? I think most churches of Christ are small enough that great diversity among the elders, and strong differences on any almost any congregationally substantive matter between the elders and the congregants, are the exception, rather than the rule, or the elders wouldn’t be elders. They either wouldn’t have been appointed, or they wouldn’t have accepted, if asked. In my own experiences, I’ve never known a man who was appointed as an elder whose goal was to bring about significant doctrinal change in his congregation. This doesn’t mean that polarizing issues don’t arise to all elderships…they do. But they’re usually brought about by those on either edge of the fringe, those who would have been vocal in their opposition to the appointment of said “erring” elder to the extent that either the nominee withdraws, or the complainer leaves. My observations have been that those kinds of issues are more frequently brought into a congregation from new members who transfer in and expect their new church to have the same personality of their old church, and set out to see that it does.
    Human nature being what it is, there are probably some elders who are more concerned about popularity than they should be; however, having said that, I firmly believe that the vast, vast majority of elders who continue to serve do so for all the right reasons, and seek peace, love, and a tolerance of different opinions within their congregations. It’s a fact that people rarely question elder candidates in detail about their doctrinal positions. Their assumption is that, because the candidate worships in their congregation and isn’t known for disruptive behavior, the candidate must feel the same way they do. And, generally speaking, they’re right. If an elder holds a position privately that differs from either the existing practice of the congregation, or the accepted position of the congregation, and that elder feels that there is a need for change, he should do it gently and slowly, by teaching and discussing, rather than by an abrupt pronouncement of a new path…in my humble opinion.

  6. Dwight says:

    I know I would never be an elder because 1.) we have five already 2.) I don’t agree with everything the preacher says 3.) the preacher is one of the elders.
    The position of being an elder is largely political in many churches, especially when you have elders already. They largely won’t bring in those that don’t agree with them on most things or will give pushback for reasons.
    Now one of our elders is one of the smartest men I know, very wise, but unfortunately he somewhat of a pushover and will bend largely to placate the preacher or whoever. This is good sometimes, but not good overall, whenever you have a alpha elder.
    In reality the preacher is the strongest elder or non-elder among the elders.
    While I think that elders ought to be in the background in regards to many things, teaching is not one of them, where they should be front and center in the assembly and among the saints in general.
    John, let me add one more. If an person who is a candidate has publically held differing views than the majority of the congregation, despite meeting all of the qualifications, he will probably not be chosen to be an elder, even though as an elder he might be able to not press those views.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jerry wrote,

    To me it is just sad when elder-preacher relations cannot be transparent and authentic.

    Well said. Even more difficult is authenticity between the elders and the congregation. I think this is the core of many congregational problems. Not all, by any means, but it’s a common source. The elders tolerate false understandings of scripture to keep the peace, and eventually it tears the church apart because we don’t have a culture of mutual respect and tolerance for disagreement. We think we have to agree to get along, which leads to getting along based on false premises — that is, we have to be dishonest with other to get along because we refuse to tolerate differences. It’s a problem.

  8. Dwight says:

    I’ve often thought, “How can we talk to others with love and compassion in regards to the truth, when we can’t even do this among ourselves?” It is a problem.
    Another problem is equating wrong with sin. We think anything wrong is sinful and thus don’t want to be wrong and thus don’t want to be sinful. Well, we are all wrong, in something all of the time.
    We need not be afraid of correcting someone and mostly we need not be offended when corrected, which is the bigger problem.
    Preachers, especially, and even some elders are largely like porcelain on pedestals we erect where a delicate balance must be kept, because otherwise if there is fall everything shatters and nothing can be recovered. At least that is what we think.
    Jay, you seem to be very open not afraid to discuss even some of the hardest topics, which is good.

  9. James says:

    Many elders have a tendency to put off acting on problems or issues until they have grown into major problems. Elders who are afraid to tell their beliefs or understanding on issues or doctrinal issues are not worthy of the office.

  10. Mark says:

    Problems within churches don’t tend to look like they did in the past. Some may not surface at all until it is too late.

  11. Jeff Richardson says:

    As an Elder let first say that most serious problems in any congregation of the Lord’s people occur when we leave the standard. I would add that most of our more liberal brethren don’t see God’s word as the standard, problem number one. When this occurs, this is when politics becomes the standard. They believe that God’s word is to constrictive and restrictive. They believe that we must allow women there proper place. I would say, that God has placed them where He wants them, which is in a submissive role to the man, Eph 5:22f. If we allow the Bible to be our only guide and allow it to speak, and be willing to accept what it says, we will come to the proper understanding. Problem number two, we don’t always like what it says. Take Sister Phoebe in Romans 16:1. The word deacon simply means “servant”. Some translations have used the word deacon in place of the word servant. All women of the congregation are servants as are all men. But in 1 Timothy 3:12 where we see the qualifications for Deacons. They are to be the husbands of one wife. If we are willing to accept what God’s word is saying, we will come to understand who can hold the “office” if you will, can be. This is not politics but understanding and obeying the word of God. It is the more liberal ones who bring in politics by decrying a gender bias.

    John M. mentioned Elders reflecting the personality of it’s members. This thought has never entered my mind. My job as an Elder is to uphold the truth regardless of how the members feel. I must always be concerned with the whole council of God being taught. That the congregation that I have charge of worships acceptably and hears nothing but bible based lessons. If the members have a problem with that, then they have a problem with God not me. I will be judged by the word of God not them. Therefore I will not sacrifice the truth for anyone’s feelings. If this is not acceptable with them they can get me removed or they can go elsewhere.

    Tolerance of opinion’s has been mentioned. If it is indeed “opinion’s” then yes tolerance of opposing views must be used. Problem number three, what’s an opinion and what’s a matter of doctrine? Here, the liberals among us have erased the line making black and white, gray. As in women deacons. They have made a clear doctrine of Christ gray and a matter of opinion, telling those who understand 1 Timothy 3, your holding an legalistic view on this. If holding to what the word says is “legalistic” then I am proud to be one.

    How did church of Christ become a denominational name? It is a biblical name is it not? Who’s church is it? It belongs to Christ why shouldn’t it wear His name? When Christ built His church, how many denominations were there? No not one. The church of Christ has long been known for people who knew their bibles and were willing to stand proudly for it. People who would defend truth and not compromise. Not so much any more. Many congregations have been over run by the liberal thinker. Once we understood that Jesus died and built only one church, HIS. Now, many want the church which Jesus built to be more like those which man has built. The Jews of old wanted to be like the other nations, and have a king. Well, God promised them one who would be far better than any earthly king. And what did they do? they rejected Him and crucified Him. Now we have people who reject His church and want something else. This is probably why some want a name change. Let us remember the words of Jeremiah in chapter 10:23, ” it is not in man who walks, to direct his own steps.” May we put our personal feelings aside, and accept what the word of God has to say and be willing to submit to it. Don’t fall for the false “new” hermeneutic that the liberal thinkers try to indoctrinate us with, which tells us that we have been reading the Bible all wrong, you don’t understand properly. Sounds like a ploy that Satan would use to me.

  12. Mark says:

    Jeff, do you know anything about liberal Christianity? I mean the group(s) who put the Bible and Æsop’s fables on the same level. When you and others brand your moderate brethren “liberal cofC” I am just not sure you realise what you are saying. You’re really calling them people who don’t believe that the Bible is anything more than a book of nice stories. As liberal as you think some cofC members are, I never saw any real liberalism.

  13. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Jeff,

    Your comments from yesterday afternoon are saturated with false statements, flawed opinion, and factual ignorance.

    I would add that most of our more liberal brethren don’t see God’s word as the standard, problem number one.

    False statement. I recognize that you are not using the classical definition of ‘liberal.’ Rather you are using in the sense of ‘anyone who does not agree with my strain of CoC teaching.’ And you are demonstrably wrong.

    Those who disagree with you do not do so because they reject the word of God as the standard; they do so because they reject your man-made opinion and tradition as the standard. BIG difference.

    They believe that God’s word is to constrictive and restrictive.

    Absolutely false and factually ignorant. You have conflated your opinion and traditions with the Word of God. It’s not.

    They believe that we must allow women there proper place. I would say, that God has placed them where He wants them, which is in a submissive role to the man, Eph 5:22f.

    Proper place of women? Submissive to man? Sounds very misogynist to me…after all, we have to keep those uppity women in their proper place. Why do they get to vote in elections with male candidates anyway? Jeff, you have ignored the entire context of this passage.

    If we allow the Bible to be our only guide and allow it to speak, and be willing to accept what it says, we will come to the proper understanding.

    That is certainly true, so why don’t you do that Instead of speaking where God has not spoken and binding where God has not bound?? Please accept your own advice.

    The church of Christ has long been known for people who knew their bibles and were willing to stand proudly for it.

    Have they REALLY been known for that, or is that just self-congratulatory wishful thinking? I have yet to find a single person outside of our OWN congregations that holds this view of us. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist. When a question of Bible knowledge comes up, no one looks towards the CoC and says, “Hey, let’s ask the CoC. They’ll know.” Our pulpits have perpetuated this gnostic myth of ourself for decades in order to bolster the notion that we alone have properly interpreted the Bible, but the myth is not true.

    Many congregations have been over run by the liberal thinker.

    Another popular myth…”Those nefarious liberals have sent out their change agents in a coordinated & concerted effort to undermine our sound congregations.” Perhaps a more reasonable explanation is that our members have increasingly removed their blinders, begun to think for themselves, recognized our deeply flawed & horribly inconsistent hermeneutic, and given voice to doubts that they have harbored for years.

    Once we understood that Jesus died and built only one church, HIS.

    Actually, everyone does understand this. Christ built his one church. Unfortunately, your thinking has fallen prey to legalism. You think that your group alone consists of the church, as if Christ’s church is defined by the Sign-Out-Front (SOF). We have adopted circular logic. We are a self-licking ice cream cone…Christ built His church…it’s occasionally named church of Christ in the Bible…our congregations are named Churches of Christ…I can’t find most other denominational names in the Bible…thus God built the SOF Church of Christ and did not build the Baptists, et al…so therefore we are the one true church. And you think we are known for our piercing biblical insight, inescapable logic, and scriptural competence among the other denominations…???

    Now we have people who reject His church and want something else.

    Another false statement. No one is rejecting Christ’s church. They are, however, rejecting your man-made traditions and opinions of what constitute the church.

    Let us remember the words of Jeremiah in chapter 10:23, ” it is not in man who walks, to direct his own steps.” May we put our personal feelings aside, and accept what the word of God has to say and be willing to submit to it.

    Good advice, so let’s begin at home. I would also state that we should reject matters of opinion as matters of faith.

  14. Monty says:

    Jeff R said,

    “Now we have people who reject His church and want something else. This is probably why some want a name change. ”

    I know of no serious Christian who would reject the church out of hand. I do know many who are rejecting Jeff’s ( and others like his) interpretation of it. A church whose foundation isn’t built on the death, burial of and resurrection of Jesus but one whose foundation is built on instrumental music is damning , taking the communion every Sunday has saving power and damning power (if not taken every week)and on the foundation of a phrase that must be uttered( “I now baptize you for the remission of your sins”) and completely understood by the believer on Jesus at their baptism.

    The sad thing is as clearly as God knows how to speak and get his message across these things aren’t stated, no BCV can be given where God says these things directly but instead one has to be taught(indoctrinated) to read these doctrines of men into the scriptures. The very thing you argue against, Jeff.

    These damnable doctrines that God nowhere points out. That manmade CofC with the sign out front that means we’re the right bunch and you other guys aren’t going to make it (those who see it differently than how we’ve been indoctrinated). That’s what’s being turned away from Jeff more and more. Last one out turnoff the lights.

  15. Jeff asked,

    How did church of Christ become a denominational name? It is a biblical name is it not? Who’s church is it? It belongs to Christ why shouldn’t it wear His name?

    It became a denominational name when it was changed from being one simple description of the people of God among many (most of which are used in Scripture more frequently than ‘Church of Christ’) into being the only acceptable name by which to denominate (name) the saints. Check the definition of denominate and denomination in any standard dictionary. It simply does not mean ‘a part of a greater whole’ as I heard preached over and over in my youth many years ago.

  16. dwight says:

    The concept of denomination as sinful is not found in the scriptures, no matter how sinful we say it is. There are some things wrong with our present coC understanding of the sin of denominationalism.
    1. If you are of Christ, you are of one who is above you, thus in a hierarchy, thus under our definition of denominationalism. We carry a name and are under a ruler. Thus denominationalism cannot be wrong.
    2. I Cor. many people were separating themselves using the names of people ““I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” In this Paul didn’t say, use the name of Christ. And in this Paul didn’t condemn the use of other names. Paul said don’t separate using names, which is sectarianism, but the irony is that one of the names not to separate using was Jesus.
    3. Israel was named after Israel. There designation of being a Hebrew was due to the town of Hebron. Paul when describing himself to the Jewish leaders said he was a Pharisee and a Jew and a Christian. Paul seemingly did have trouble with using different names to describe himself. and God didn’t seem to have a problem when Israel took on the name of the man Israel.
    4. Oh, yes. The name “church of Christ” is technically wrong. The term church is actually ekklesia, which means “called out”, but in meaning means “congregation”, thus it should be read as “congregation of Christ”. Even the “churches of Christ” is “congregation of Christ”. There is no such thing as “churches” in the scriptures as it is all “congregation”, which is singular to one entity even while plural in the context of the people who are in it. The name is not a name, but a description of Christians, much like children of God, saints, etc. describes Christians. But it is those who take on the name of Christ and divide from others based on that name who are sectarian.
    5. It is God who adds to the “congregation”, not man, so we have no ability to judge who is in the church.

  17. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Jerry,
    Agreed. Merriam-Webster defines denominate as:

    Transitive verb
    1: to give a name to : designate
    2: to express or designate in some denomination <will denominate prices in United States dollars

    The same defines denomination as:

    1: a religious group
    2: the value that a particular coin or bill has
    3: an amount of money that something is worth

    Perhaps the more important question for Jeff is…Where is the BCV for condemning other names like “First Baptist Church of Peachtree City, GA” or “Passion City Church” or “North Point Community Church” or any other designation that is not written verbatim in the Bible? These designations for God’s people are not any more right or any more wrong than “Peachetree City Church of Christ.”

  18. dwight says:

    Denomination is one of those things we in the coC hold over others despite not having scripture in which to condemn, based on the concept “well it should be in there”. I mean, it should be wrong to take on the name of another who is not Christ, thus it is wrong. You cannot be any more sectarian than to divide from others based on a name, even the name of Christ. At least Baptist is in the scriptures in it purest form from Baptizo, while the word “church” is not even there in any form and we still have a problem with that.

  19. Alabama John says:

    Used to go to debates and hear the right name argued for hours. We used several beautiful full bed sheets that I helped nail up on the walls of drawings, diagrams, illustrations, scriptures, many scriptural scenes in “argument”s,with the Nazarene Church, Church of God where they argued their name was higher than ours since God was Jesuses father and the father is over the son. Also regularly with the Baptist. very much a show, should of had popcorn, with the Holiness in their various forms where they would shout out, clap, cry, raise hands and the women sob, fall to their knees and pray out loud if we made a bad point in their eyes or they made a good one for themselves, and many others that had scripture somewhere that they used for their name.
    Some even has their church named and also the members with different names. Like we do using Christian for our name.

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