My friend’s church recently made a controversial decision concerning the worship style of the church. And I’m concerned about this church. Not because of their decision, but because of how they handled the backlash about the decision. These church leaders told the disgruntled members that there were other churches in the town who did worship the “old way”, and those who disagreed with the changes were free to leave to go to those other churches.
These leaders genuinely thought the controversial decision was best for the congregation. And they’d decided that the best way to handle it was to encourage the dissenters to find a church that better fit their preferences.
This is not an uncommon approach. Maybe you’ve seen or heard it from leaders in the churches you’ve attended. “No reason to stay around here and be disgruntled,” they say. “Such-and-such church down the road has exactly what you’re looking for.”
Perhaps you think it is a reasonable approach to handling difficult decisions. Everyone can be happy. Controversy can be avoided. The leaders can rest in peace.
But is it a good approach? I do not think so. In fact, I think it is a misguided approach: not misguided according to principles of organizational management, but misguided according to the teachings in the Bible.
Why? Let me first summarize a couple of simple convictions from the Scriptures, and then I’ll use those to apply it to the situation discussed above.
Two Basic Principles
First, the Bible teaches that church members are to submit to their leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” This seems pretty basic to me. Our leaders have authority over us, and we are called to submission. As a Christian, submission is about being like Christ, not merely about knowing your place in the power structure. (We shouldn’t put leaders in a position where they are tempted to “lord” their authority over us. See Matt. 20:25-26.) So we should take seriously anything that undermines this submissiveness.
Second, the Bible teaches that the decisions about worship (among other things) should be decided based on what’s good for the whole body, not what’s good for you or others. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul forbids a Christian from speaking in tongues unless there is an interpreter present. The reason is that, without an interpreter, speaking in tongues does not build up the church.
Stop for a moment and think about that. It must have felt awesome to speak in tongues. It must have been a great benefit to one’s own faith. But Paul would forbid you to use that gift unless it was done in such a way that benefitted the church. This is rooted in a deep-seated theme in the New Testament: the selfless, sacrificial relationships that should characterize the disciples of Jesus, since Jesus himself was selfless and sacrificial.
Three Reasons These Leaders Were Wrong
So how does this apply to what my friend’s church leaders did? I think there are three reasons their decision was misguided in light of these two Biblical principles.
First, it encourages the church members who disagree with the leaders decisions not to submit to the leadership. If you are a church member who will leave the church because you disagree with the decisions of the leaders, where is the submission to the church leaders? Maybe heresy is a good reason to leave a church. But disagreements about worship preferences? I don’t see how this is not blatant disregard for the command to submit to one’s leaders.
Second, it encourages church members to think about what is best for themselves, not what’s best for the entire congregation. The leaders’ approach to this situation is to basically say to the disgruntled members: “We’ve done what we think is best for the church. You do what’s best for you.” But the members are not supposed to do what’s best for themselves. They are supposed to do what is best for the church.
Third, it encourages a consumeristic approach to church. This is easy to see. The leaders told the members to attend a church that has worship packaged how they want it. In other words, go somewhere that has what you’re looking for. But if that is our criterion for a church (it has what we are looking for), we miss an important element of joining a church: it’s ability to transform us due to the things we weren’t looking for.
So these leaders did not make the best decisions. I don’t think I am exaggerating to say that its long-term effects can be quite serious. You see, the weight of church leadership is that every decision displays your theological assumptions. That’s quite a burden, but perhaps that is why the biblical requirements for church leaders stresses spiritual maturity.
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