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Friday, September 23, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Spare Some Change?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Last week we were discussing how we can best live out the truth that, denominations notwithstanding, the church of God remains one Body, not many.

Tom: I do think the number of available evangelical church options out there can be beneficial in some ways, especially for elders. For instance, when you find that great new couple who want to join your church but can’t restrain themselves from talking about the glories of speaking in tongues, or the blessed benefits of Reformed Theology, or why women ought to worship audibly, the multiplicity of options allows you to easily point them to the gathering in your neighbourhood that might suit them better in that respect without a lot of hard feelings.

After all, it's not like you’re saying, “If you don’t like the way we do it, there’s no place for you in the Church”.

Chapter and Verse

IC: But if we’re not going to accept the theological and church-practice baggage that fellow believers bring to church with them, our reason can never be, “We’re not used to that”, “That’s not our tradition, or “We don’t do that here”. The reason has to be, “The Lord told us not to do that”, chapter and verse. And our first impulse has to be to help the asking person see the principle that they’re missing — not to get them out of our hair.

Tom: Oh, agreed. But generally, when somebody new shows up at a local church and can’t stop talking about a particular bone of contention, it’s something they’ve been equally contentious about elsewhere. They may even have been asked to leave another church because of it, or warned that their desire to share their pet doctrine was not welcome.

IC: What happens if there’s NO particular scripture against what they want to do — and yet it’s not our tradition, we don’t like it, or we’re not used to it? What then, Tom?

Tom: I was thinking primarily of doctrine, obviously, as you can see from my three examples, but there are certainly cases where it’s not doctrine but some aspect of the way the church gathers that a new person would like to see changed. Maybe they think your music would be more appealing with a drummer or a “worship team”, or that hymnbooks are old hat, or that reading the King James from the platform is off-putting, or that it would be better to have one meeting on Sunday rather than two, or whatever.

Is that the sort of thing you’re thinking of?

IC: Yes. Nothing where the doctrine against the suggested new practice is easy to find. Something genuinely indefinite.

Not All Things Are Helpful

Tom: Depends what they want to do, doesn’t it? I think of Paul’s words, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” Where some matter of church order is not clearly spelled out for us in the New Testament, the elders have to consider what is good for their entire church, not just what might please a few.

Sometimes what seems like traditionalism isn’t the elders dragging their feet. It may be they have weighed the options carefully and decided before God in favour of the status quo because it works better for the particular collection of sheep they have been tasked with shepherding.

IC: Yes, indeed. I’ve seen that happen. But the problem remains: how do we stay fair if we’re insisting on a tradition rather than on scripture? And I think the other side of the coin is this: sometimes a new person can raise a question that’s been long killed by tradition. It can be an opportunity for the congregation to revisit their practices, and to see if they’ve been genuinely scriptural or only traditional. And I think that can be very, very good — not merely for the new person, but for the congregation itself.

Debating What's Debatable

Tom: But we’re not contrasting tradition with scripture here, right? We’re talking about a situation that is, in your words, “genuinely indefinite” — a truly debatable matter. I’m thinking of a choice between, say, a tradition like singing a cappella at the Lord’s Supper and a “cool new idea” like adding a guitarist. Such a thing may be a useful new direction in one church but not so helpful in another, depending on practical considerations like acoustics, the age of the congregation, the availability of suitable musicians, etc. The elders really have to make a call like that on the basis of their knowledge of their own congregation. Some changes of that sort help, others don’t.

Now, if you want to talk about a new person’s interpretation of scripture (which may well be correct) set against the old guard’s interpretation of the same text, when their interpretation has been held for years incorrectly or unthinkingly, we can certainly go there. That definitely happens.

Setting Our Defaults

IC: I’m not as sanguine as you are about the value of automatically letting a congregation have its “traditions”. Our congregations do need to be engaged with an active process of searching the scriptures and reforming their practices. They need to be continuously “Berean”, if I can borrow that word. But human beings are inclined to just stay in the groove long after that groove has become stale. A new challenge to old thinking can be a catalyst to that.

Tom: So all Lord’s Suppers need a guitarist?

IC: Not all, of course. But is there a scriptural reason why none ever can?

Tom: No, but declining to make that choice is not an automatic indicator of being hidebound and out-of-touch.

IC: Where the music is faltering badly, would not some instrumentation possibly improve the situation? I think so.

Tom: Sure, I have no problem with that. I’m just saying the answer to “Should we change ‘x’?” is not an automatic affirmative. It’s situational. It calls for local discernment.

Step Up and Change?

IC: I’m not saying that a new person or someone from a different background should come in as a boat rocker or rebel. I’m saying that when we have a tradition that they are finding perplexing, and we find that we have no good scriptural warrant for that tradition, then that can be the leading of the Lord that we should reconsider our tradition. It might be our call to step up and change.

Tom: I guess I see value in the new person keeping his mouth shut and showing a track record of character and commitment before making a lot of suggestions about changes. I don’t disagree with you that a new point of view can be a very good thing — it absolutely can. But not all change is automatically good change either.

I’m not saying letting all traditions stand should be the default. Some traditions are pretty lame and outdated. But if a change is going to be made, it had better be made for a good reason, and it had better be well thought through.

Stale and Unhelpful

IC: But that policy DOES seem to me to make the traditions the default. And I’m skeptical: why should an ineffective, stale, unhelpful tradition be allowed to prevail anymore than a bad innovation — all other things being equal, of course? Is not the real test (assuming, again, no scriptural conflict) whether a practice is beneficial, helpful and edifying? Why then should a tradition get a “pass” that innovation is not allowed?

Tom: But you’re assuming the status quo is “stale” and “unhelpful”. It may not be. In some churches it is. But sometimes it’s the people making suggestions who are on the wrong side of things. Mrs. So-and-So might push for a guitarist only because her son plays guitar and she wants to get him involved, and he might be a terrible player. Changing or not changing is not a matter of reflexively saying “yes” or reflexively saying “no”. It’s a matter of considering whether what’s being offered is beneficial, helpful and edifying, as well as considering whether what’s already being done meets those criteria. Which I think is what you’re saying.

For that matter, it may be that a third course of action — something entirely different — would be preferable to both the status quo and the suggested change. But you won’t know that until you really consider both ways of doing things with an open mind.

What Makes for Edification

IC: Yes, that’s quite true. The important point is that all things have to be up for review. If they edify, or are required by precept or principle of scripture, we keep them. If they are not edifying — or no longer edifying — then they’ve got to go.

Tradition, though, resists review: and habit or inertia makes it the default setting. So some extra energy on the side of innovation and fresh thinking is required if we are going to find the best option. With merely equal effort, tradition will rule the roost every time.

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