At a Sunday morning assembly, the elder making the closing announcements asks the members and visitors to pass in their attendance sheets. At no one’s request, a seven-year old girl named Katie gets up to help pick up the sheets. She’s seen her friends (all boys) do the same thing the last several weeks and just assumes that if her friends can pick up announcement sheets, so can she.
Afterwards, two members who noticed this event ask to meet with the elders. The elders invite them to their next meeting, unaware that they have opposite feelings on the matter.
At the meeting, the elders tell the two members they should feel free to express their concerns. The older member, named Sam, begins.
“I can’t tell you how upset I am about this. I haven’t slept a wink since Sunday morning. That little Smith girl got up to pick up announcement sheets, and not a soul did anything to stop her! I mean, she walked right past two deacons and an elder, and they did nothing!”
An elder responded, “You know, of course, that this was an entirely spontaneous action by the girl. We didn’t ask her to take up announcement sheets. But when she walked by me, smiling, so proud to be helping out at church, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her that God wouldn’t approve of her serving the congregation this way. There really wasn’t time to think through all the doctrinal ramifications, but – on the spot – I couldn’t think of a scripture that permits boys to do this and not girls. And, you know, I still can’t. But maybe I’ve missed something. Is there a scriptural problem here? I mean, there may be reasons of expedience that we decide not to allow this, but before we talk about the practical implications, we really have to consider what God says.”
The older member looked the elder in the eye, ready to take up the challenge. “I know that she wasn’t asked to speak, or teach, or exercise authority. But I know this: this sort of thing is the way these things begin. First, you let girls take a seemingly neutral role in worship. Then you give the women the right to pass communion. Pretty soon, they’re preaching, and then you make them elders! It’s the camel’s nose under the tent! Giving women too much authority always starts with something like this! It’s happened at lots of congregations!”
Another elder turns to the younger member. “Joe, you haven’t said anything. Are you here to support what Sam says, or do you have something else on your mind?”
“No. I’m not here to support Sam. I love and appreciate Sam. He’s served the Lord very well over the years. In fact, I care so much for Sam that I’m not sure I’d have come if I’d known he’d be here taking the position that he has. I don’t want to start an argument or divide the church. But I just see things differently.
“You see, I have three daughters. They are bright, servant-hearted girls, and I can’t tell you how excited they were to see Katie picking up announcement sheets! And I’m scared to death that telling that sweet little Katie that she can’t pick up announcement sheets will just be the first step in our taking some major steps backwards regarding women. I’m so worried about this I haven’t slept a wink since Sunday.
“Right now, we don’t require women to wear hats in church, but we used to. Are we going back to that? And it used to be that we wouldn’t let women ask questions in class. Are we going back to that? And are we going to make them wear dresses on Sunday night and Wednesday night like we used to? Are we going to start preaching sermons against women wearing pants like we used to? Are we going to ban jewelry and make up like we used to? I just can’t bear the thought of telling my daughters they can’t play soccer anymore because they can’t wear pants even for sports – but that’s what we told my grandmother! And it looks to me like we’re right back there. It’s the camel’s nose under the tent!
“It just seems to me that we have this great opportunity to treat our girls better than we treated their mothers, and we’re going to blow it, and for no good reason. In fact, I’ve heard of lots of churches where this sort of thing was the first step in taking the church 50 years backwards in terms of our treatment of women! I don’t want to have women elders or preachers, but I just can’t ask my wife and daughter to go back to way things used to be!”
The second elder smiled. “So no matter what we do, we’re going to bring a host of evils down on this congregation, right? I mean, one seven-year old girl picks up a few pieces of paper and suddenly any decision we make leads to a long list of horrors, right?” The two members nodded, maybe a little sheepishly.
The oldest eldest who’d been listening intently with his eyes closed, spoke up. “Gentlemen. I thank you so much for caring enough about God’s word and about our members – men and women, girls and boys – to come speak with us. I think you are both sincere and both make well-intended points. You are good-hearted men.
“But I’ve been an elder for an awfully long time, and I learned something a long time ago that might be of some help here: no matter what decision we make on anything, no matter what we decide, any decision we ever make – taken to extremes – will have ungodly results. But it’s our God-given job to make decisions. We just need to be sure that we don’t go to extremes – either extreme. And I can assure both of you that no matter which way we go, we’ll not go to either extreme. None of these terrible things you are afraid of will happen at this church so long as God gives me and my brother elders breath. We’ll make a decision. I don’t know what it will be because we’ve not talked about it yet. But we know our scriptures, and we respect our women, and neither of you needs to lose any more sleep.”
It’s a classic argument, you know – the camel’s nose under the tent. Let the camel stick his nose under the tent skirt and pretty soon the whole camel’s come in and destroyed the tent and everything in it. And sometimes this is true, but not nearly as often as our editors and authors would have us think.
You see, there’s not a single position or decision that anyone can ever make that – taken to extremes – couldn’t lead to something clearly sinful. And as our story attempts to illustrate, it’s remarkable how many of our brothers and sisters know of countless congregations where just this thing has happened. Of course, rarely can they give the names of those churches! But we sometimes imagine to be true what we are afraid is true. It’s one those human flaws that so plague us all.
Perhaps a chart will help make the point.
The line represents all the possible outcomes of a decision. The arrow tips are the sinful extremes. Of course, there are usually, maybe always, sinful extremes in both directions. The circle is where a congregation presently is on the issue. This congregation is just a hair left of center.
Any change in a given position moves the church closer to a sinful position:
But a decision to the left, moves the church one step closer toward the extreme left. No matter which way the church changes, it moves toward a sinful extreme. And so, do we refuse to ever change? Well, only if we are never wrong, and only Jesus can make that claim!
The solution is to get away from worrying about extremes. Rather, we need to worry about truth, and we need to always move in the direction of truth, even though a movement toward truth will always also be a move toward a sinful extreme.
In the above example, a move to the right not only moves the church closer to the sinful extreme on the far right, it moves the church closer to scriptural truth. Even if members, editors, or others protest the move — and accurately point out how this moves the church closer to the sin on the far right — the church must make this move. In fact, it should move even further. Of course, the church should also carefully refrain from moving too far.
Now this brings us to a related fallacious argument, the compromise argument. Just as every move can accurately be described as moving the church closer to a sinful extreme, every move can also be categorized as compromise with a sinful extreme.
Take the most recent chart above. When the elders decide to move the church to the right, those who disagree can characterize the move as a compromise between the church’s former position and the sinful too-far-right extreme. After all, the church’s new position will not only be closer to the sinful right, it will not go all the way, making it look an awful lot like compromise. Of course, this “compromise” happens to move the church closer to the truth.
Now we need to make an important distinction here. Proving that a position happens to be a move toward a sinful position does not make it wrong, does not make it a compromise, and does not prove it will lead to sin. After all, all moves are toward a sinful extreme.
I am not at all suggesting that no change can lead to sin or that no compromise ever occurs. Rather, the point is that it takes much more to prove someone wrong than to point out that the change he or she proposes is in the direction of some wrongful extreme. And far too often, we’ve accepted such arguments as convincing. They are not.
We are going to have to content ourselves with proving arguments wrong by the scriptures rather than fears of what may happen next or spurious compromise claims. On the other hand, it is perfectly fair when an eldership encourages change in any direction to ask them how far they intend to take things. If the elders give an answer, they should be believed.
The Scriptures explicitly prohibit making charges against elders “except on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). Speculation about what may come next hardly measures up to this standard and is a form of rebellion against God’s leaders. (We’ll talk more about “two or three witnesses” in the next lesson.)