Friday, March 12, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: The Fat Lady Sings

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

Preparing to cut loose at
your church and mine.
David B. is a regular reader/commenter here. A few weeks back he (politely) asked Immanuel Can, “Why do you choose to fellowship in a church where you clearly disagree with how they operate?”

IC responded, “Maybe I’ll do a post on that …”

Tom: Maybe that time is now, IC, not least because I feel like it might be a useful topic for a number of our readers who have found themselves in similar positions.

As you suggested to David in your response, churches do not suddenly become heretical overnight. It’s my experience that almost anything can be smuggled into a local church provided it is done incrementally.

Death By 1,000 Paper Cuts

Immanuel Can: Absolutely. There are very few churches that go bad suddenly. Usually, it’s a slow drift, starting with giving up key elements of the church’s mission and structure, but always under the guise of reasonable accommodation to the modern world, or “allowable variation” of some kind. It’s all so sweet and charitable …

Tom: That makes it awfully hard for folks in the congregation to decide when it’s time to get off the bus, doesn’t it? Especially when you are surrounded by people you know and love and to whom you have genuinely committed yourself, often for a decade or more.

IC: That’s exactly right. You love the people, and you believe in large parts of what they’re doing. But more and more, you find yourself at variance with some of the decisions they’re making. Now, taking umbrage over little stuff is very bad for a Christian: we ought to bear with the failings of others even when their convictions are a little different than ours, so running off at the first disagreement is wrong.

The Enemy of the Good

Tom: I think so too. Was it Voltaire who said (in French of course), “The perfect is the enemy of the good”? There’s something in that. As I’ve been told many times over the years, there are no perfect churches. To expect perfection as you and I might define it at any point in our Christian lives (and if you’re anything like me that definition is constantly changing) is to court disappointment in a big, big way. So there has to be some leeway there, as you suggest.

Of the seven churches in Revelation, most had deficiencies of one sort or another. Still, they remained churches as of the time John wrote down his message despite some being in danger of various sorts of judgment, up to and including the removal of their “lampstand”.

So where exactly do you think that critical distinction is to be made?

IC: Not on matters of taste or tradition, but on matters of theological principle, that’s certain. If an issue is just about holidays or eating habits, then what we ought to do is bear with the weak. But the problem is that theory and practical application aren’t always separate: what you do affects what you believe, so even there we need good discernment, and can’t always say that practical decisions are merely optional matters and can be decidable on personal taste alone.

Core Principles Disguised As Negotiables

Tom: It seems to me this distinction becomes important when a church is making changes to what it has traditionally done. People who are seeking to implement change prefer that we think of what they are doing as simply opting for a new but entirely legitimate practical variant rather than compromising on a core principle.

IC: Right. They think that what they want to do is on the level of “What color should we paint the walls next?” That’s the favored stance of the innovator, because it means that any objection is really unreasonable. But the truth is that actually very few questions — particularly about the church — are really so clearly nothing but a matter of taste. Almost everything else starts to impinge on more important issues.

Now, we don’t want to get legalistic, inventing hard rules where none exist. And we absolutely must make principled changes to our practices in order to meet the challenges from our world. No problem there. But we must be very wise, too, and not imagine that all choices fall into a neat division between a) clearly matters of scriptural principle, and b) clearly matters wide open for innovation.

Leadership and Change

Tom: Let’s talk about leadership styles for a moment, because I think leadership is possibly the biggest factor is how a church makes decisions and what sorts of decisions it will be encouraged to make. In your situation it was not just that a few influential members of the congregation changed their minds on major issues; there was also a complete change in leadership, was there not?

IC: It happened in stages, and none of the stages was so alarming as to create a rush to the exits. But add them all up and they amount to a major, major shift in practice, then in doctrine. Here were the stages:

Firstly, the church decided that having one professional man and a board of non-teaching elders was better than the scriptural pattern (or “more practical”, or “allowable innovation”, or whatever). They hired a paid “teaching elder”, a good man, and kept him around for a bit. It all seemed to be working okay ... less stress for everyone.

Tom: That may have been the state of things last time I visited.

The “Teaching Elder”

IC: But then the good guy, the “teaching elder” needed to retire; so the elders formed a committee. And since “teaching elder” isn’t really a postable job, they called it a pastorate and trolled the seminaries, eventually settling on a man whose talent was obvious and whose views were deemed close enough to the church’s historical stand. The new guy came in, but this time with a title and with a mandate to take over most speaking opportunities, all the administrative responsibilities, and even to sit on the elders’ board himself.

Having then “done their job”, the search board disbanded and the existing elders all retired — all at once (leaving places for new faces, in theory; you know ... a new start ... all that).

Tom: So in one fell swoop, the leadership of your church is unrecognizable.

IC: Right. Now, once the new guy was in the driver’s seat, it became clear that the “close enough” of his views was not “close enough” after all. But nobody was left to challenge that.

Tom: That’s so efficient you’d almost think it was calculated. Were the new elders biblically qualified men, or did that go out the window too?

IC: Two appeared; both very humble people and sufficiently qualified. But one was new to eldership, and a kind and timid man by nature. The other was a true elder and godly, but also gentle; and he was alone, really. Though I know he tried, there was simply no managing the new “pastor” person. He’s not really correctable, I fear.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

Tom: If we’re to take anything instructive from your experience, I think we have to ask ourselves where it is exactly that things went wrong. If I can put it this bluntly, where did the church depart from the known will of God? Can you identify a specific point where a stand should have been firmly taken and wasn’t? Or was this all more or less inevitable?

IC: No, not inevitable … but fairly typical, I’ve discovered. The process starts when a congregation knows it’s departing from scripture on a few points, but begins to make excuses. In this case, the people in charge had every reason to know that setting apart one man to be the “teaching elder” was going down a slippery slope. But they were sure they could hold it there. Of course, now we see they couldn’t.

Tom: Well, yes. All elders are to be “able to teach”. To single out any man as a “teaching elder” is to concede that some don’t, can’t or won’t teach — in which case they are not biblical elders in the first place, whatever title we may choose to give them. And it’s a very small step from having an elder who functions almost exactly as “pastors” do in other denominations to just calling a spade a spade. Once you accept the “teaching elder”, Brünnhilde is warming up for a rousing chorus of Götterdämmerung.

IC: There were other warning signs: controversial NT instructions backgrounded, the decline of worship, increasing emphasis on programs, choosing unqualified elders ... all these things are really symptoms of an attitude that is developing. And what’s inevitable after that is trouble down the line.

Open to the Word

Tom: Did you initially think things could be turned around?

IC: Not necessarily. These days, it’s a rare church that is not already compromising in some way. But when you love the people of God, you just have to put up with some of that. It’s sad, though, when things do tip off the cliff. And a hireling flees easily, so you want to stay and help if you can ... but not foment rebellion, not compromise yourself, not abandon the sheep, not settle for whatever comes, and remain faithful to truth without being a difficult person.

Well, you see how it goes.

Tom: I realize this might be different for every Christian because it’s a matter of conscience … but for you, when does the fat lady sing?

IC: Okay, here’s my bottom line: it's not a matter of having all the right doctrines, or none of us would ever have a church at all. In fact, perfection is a standard that we ourselves cannot possibly meet, so we can ill afford to hold our fellow believers to it.

But here’s what’s precious: to be humble and open to the word of God. If a church has that, then no matter how far off track it may have strayed, the Lord can — and will — bring it back. And so long as that’s the case, it’s the duty of faithful servants of Christ to stick with his people and help them.

When a church can no longer endure correction from the word of God, then it’s done.

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