Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Agents of Change

Are you an agent of change in your local church? Maybe you should be — of a certain very specific sort, of course.

Several recent studies in other areas of the Bible have led me back into Revelation 2 and 3, the letters to the seven churches. And one thing we see the Head of the Church saying repeatedly to those he loves is that they need change of one sort or another: to Ephesus, get back to the first works; to Pergamum, stop subscribing to false teaching; to Thyatira, stop tolerating it; to Sardis, finish the job you started; and to Laodicea, be zealous and repent.

Change, change, change.

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

Assuming these were real churches in real cities, over 70% of them already needed major changes, even in the first century when Christianity was a brand new thing. Of the two that didn’t, both were weak and either actively suffering or just barely hanging on.

Suffering? Weak? Does that sound like your church? Didn’t think so.

Since it doesn’t, odds are not insignificant that your church, like those the Lord rebukes in Revelation, may also need to change something about the course it is currently taking. These letters were given to John, and to us, for a reason. They are not simply historical artefacts of mere intellectual interest, but practical warnings about things that will almost invariably tend to go wrong within local expressions of the Body of Christ throughout the course of the Church Age.

Before You Tear Up Your Statement of Faith ...

Thus, change is frequently necessary to bring us back on course. And change doesn’t happen unless Christians take careful stock of what needs to be modified in their particular situation, pray for it, model it and encourage it in others.

So far, I think most our readers will probably agree. There is something in almost every local situation that is not quite right and could do with some modification.

But before you tear up your statement of faith and start from scratch, consider again the churches in Revelation. Chances are that from the Lord’s perspective, your real issues are less doctrinal and more practical, as was the case in Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea. More often than not, our problem is not so much how we read the word of God and what we construe it to say, but whether or not we then follow what we have read.

A Highly Probable Target

An aside: If the problems the Lord addressed are in any way representative, it is quite unlikely your church’s problem is being too conservative, too uptight, or too fastidious about obeying the word of God. Even the specific variety of false teaching that needed to be rooted out in Pergamum, like so much false teaching today, is easily recognizable in that it panders to the appetites, sexual or otherwise. Whatever specific details you attribute to the teaching of the Nicolaitans, it is universally agreed their teaching promoted fleshly indulgence, not excessive asceticism. It was liberal Christianity run amuck; not stuffy, legalistic nit-picking.

We had a few of the latter sort of churches around last century. They are almost nonexistent today. That’s not to say we want them back, but to point out on which front the danger to our faith is most likely to arise: any supposed new interpretation of scripture that gives Christians greater scope for sexual expression than has been traditionally understood ought to be viewed as a probable frontal attack on the churches of God.

Leave the Doctrine to the Elders

In any case, of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, the need for doctrinal change was a factor only in Pergamum, where they needed to get back to the Word and away from their false teaching rather than being more tolerant and granting one another greater and greater license in Christian living and worship.

Today, denominationalism has almost entirely obviated the need for pushing purely doctrinal change in local churches. While there was one church in Thyatira, there are many local churches in any reasonable sized city or town, offering a veritable buffet of doctrinal options. For the individual who feels he or she is out of sync with what the elders teach, by far the most constructive option is to seek out a church with which he or she is more in doctrinal harmony. For any of us to try to force a local church into our preferred doctrinal shape when nobody else there has any interest in changing is the equivalent of 0.3% of the population telling the rest of us who should be using which public washroom. It’s always good to keep in mind that “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” The word for “destroy” there means to contaminate or corrupt. Introducing new ingredients into the teaching in Someone Else’s church is generally a bad idea.

Unnecessary Division

It’s also unnecessary. If you come into membership or fellowship in an existing local church knowing full well what they teach, and then find yourself irked that most of the women wear head coverings and remain silent in the meetings, there are likely ten evangelical churches within driving distance where that won’t be a problem for you. Relocating to one of them has the merit of at least being undivisive. If you find your new church’s views on John Calvin overly critical, there is almost surely a Reformed church of one sort or another around. Going there will damage nobody. If, despite all that, you still feel an overwhelming compulsion to muck about with what your new church believes because your own view of things is so all-fired important, consider the not-so-remote possibility that the problem might just be yours.

Now, that’s not to say your more controversial opinions about doctrine will never be heard; some Christians are remarkable courteous about exchanging views. But they may not look kindly on you publicly advocating for a different interpretation than the one they have collectively endorsed. If they do not, you can hardly call them inconsistent.

In short, change agency from outside — especially of the doctrinal sort — is usually unwelcome, and with good reason.

A Closer Harmony

On the other hand, nobody can reasonably object to the sort of change agent who is looking to bring his or her fellow believers into closer harmony with their own professed beliefs as currently articulated by church leadership. (This is maybe as close as we can come in a practical sense to bringing a church into harmony with the word of God; the place where the maximum number of believers acts consistently in good conscience toward their Father.) If a great majority of believers in any given local church object to being encouraged to be more like that thing they all agreed to be in their statement of faith and practice, the problem is likely with the statement, in that it no longer accurately expresses the beliefs of the congregation or the teaching of scripture. Perhaps it never did. (Of course if the departure is of the sinful sort, it goes without saying there is a problem with the people too.)

But it seems to me it is these sorts of changes — more faithfulness, renewed intensity of commitment, and a more determined adherence to the faith once delivered — that the Head of the Church is consistently looking for in Revelation.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is likely to get enthusiastic about being encouraged to get back to the first works and being more like what you profess to be as a church. Even less will many Christians enthuse about being told to be zealous and repent, especially when they need to. But if you are encouraging your fellow believers back toward that to which they already pay lip service and once used to do (especially when they have put it in writing, and especially when you are practicing what you preach), you can hardly be criticized for trying to foist on them some sort of strange new emphasis.

That’s the sort of change agent more congregations could use. Certainly, such a person would be behaving consistently with the expressed wishes of the Church’s Head.

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