Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, addresses the needs of a class of Christians sometimes called the “Dones” — as in “done with church but not Jesus” — or the “dechurched.”
I should add that this problem is often not about centralized control by the leadership. Sometimes, it’s the membership that’s intolerant of disagreement more than the leaders. And it may take the leaders many years to get the members to tolerate disagreement about non-essentials.
And this means that it’s important for churches to routinely have a conversation about what is and isn’t an essential. This is difficult in any denomination, but it’s especially hard in Churches of Christ because we have no doctrine that defines what is and isn’t essential. We just kind of make it up as we go along. It’s about tradition and editors and an unspoken, unwritten, very long set of rules that vary from preacher to preacher.
But it’s not just Churches of Christ. Baptists have a long history of requiring members to sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol as a condition to church membership. John Piper asked his church to remove that requirement from their bylaws, arguing —
But the main reason the proposed amendment will help us avoid evil and the chief reason I support the amendment is that it helps guard us from an unbiblical legalism and exclusivism. … I use the word “legalism” in at least two senses, but both have a common root problem. First, legalism means treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. In other words legalism will be present wherever a person is trying to be ethical in his own strength, that is, without relying on the merciful help of God in Christ. Simply put, moral behavior that is not from faith is legalism. The legalist is always a very moral person. In fact the majority of moral people are legalists because their so-called Judeo-Christian morality inherited from their forefathers does not grow out of a humble, contrite reliance on the merciful enabling of God.
On the contrary, for the legalist, morality serves the same function that immorality does for the antinomian, the free-thinker, the progressive, namely, it serves as an expression of self-reliance and self-assertion. The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted is the same reason some German university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in downtown Munich. The moral legalist is always the elder brother of the immoral prodigal. They are blood brothers in God’s sight because both reject the sovereign mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the NT that both will result in a tragic loss of eternal life. So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. It is a danger we must guard against in our own hearts every day. And please know that my old self is just as prone to it as anyone.
The second meaning of legalism is this: the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church. This is where unbiblical exclusivism arises. There is no getting around the fact that the church does not include everyone. We do exclude people from membership because we believe worship should imply commitment to the lordship of Christ, the head of the church. But exclusion of people from the church should never be taken lightly. It is a very serious matter. Schools and clubs and societies can set up any human regulations they wish in order to keep certain people out and preserve by rule a particular atmosphere. But the church is not man’s institution. It belongs to Christ. He is the head of the body, and he alone should set the entrance requirements. That is very important!
In other words, no matter how strongly we feel about the dangers of alcohol, we are not permitted to add commands to God’s word. We are not wiser than God.
We can certainly advise our members of the dangers of alcohol — and point out that the Bible strongly prohibits drunkenness or addiction to it. But we may not command abstention when the Bible does not.
Indeed, the Bible speaks very pointedly against adding commands that God did not
(Matt. 15:8-9 ESV) 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
If you impose a commandment that God does not impose, then your heart is far from God. It’s not a good place to be.
(Col. 2:20-23 ESV) 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion [KJV: “will worship”] and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
What is “will worship” or “self-made religion”? Adding commands not made by God.
Paul points out that merely imposing strict commands does not make us better people. The solution is not to pile command upon command. Rather, the solution is found earlier in Colossians (although the English is often misunderstood) —
(Col. 1:9-12 ESV) 9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
The voice is passive. We are to “be filled” by God “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” “Spiritual” is pneumatikos. As we’ve covered several times (usually in the context of 1 Cor 15), this doesn’t mean “religious” or “Christian.” It means “empowered by the Spirit” or “given by the Spirit” (BDAG).
The understanding and wisdom that allows us to be saved comes from the indwelling Spirit, not from commands imposed by humans in the exercise of their natural wisdom. God’s wisdom is far greater. We cannot be holier than God. When we try to improve upon this teachings, we become less holy.