Abuse -- "To use wrongly or improperly; misuse;"
Practice -- "1.) Actual performance 2) Frequent performance, custom."
On Thursday of the recent debate in Lake Jackson, Charles Holt gave an excellent speech on how bishops (overseers) ought to conduct themselves, using Acts 20 as a text. Following the speech, several men, not in agreement with Holt, commented that "it was the greatest speech they had ever heard on the ABUSES of the Eldership." Their implication was that our practice is right and that Holt was a tired old preacher overreacting to ABUSES.
It is very difficult to separate abuse from our practice. If we use anything "wrongly or improperly'' and it's our "actual, frequent performance" and "custom," does not the abuse then equal our practice? Concerning the 95 theses that Martin Luther wrote, the historian Philip Schaff noted: "They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse ."!(1) Luther was a practicing Catholic and at that time was unable to recognize that the abuses equaled the practice. Years later Luther looked back and said of the "theses," "...how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business.''(2) In spite of Luther's weak beginning he came to realize that the problems of the Catholic Church were not merely abuses; practices were involved too! The practices were the abuses!
Most preachers argue that they are not employees of the elders who hire them. In fact, many preachers get upset at the suggestion and claim such a practice is just an ABUSE! In congregations that have official elders, who hires and fires the preacher? Who decides if the preacher will receive a raise or how many meetings he can hold per year? One congregation in Louisville has a preacher who is not allowed to preach elsewhere without the elders' permission. Is it practice or abuse?
Many argue the elders are to be spiritual leaders not a Board of Directors. Yet, when letters are written to a church requesting support, do the members act on the letters (or in many places even see them); or is it the Board of Elders? When preachers write to a church requesting meeting work, do they write the members or The Eldership? What is our "actual frequent performance and custom"? Is it practice or abuse?
J.T. Smith argued in the debate that the current situation at a congregation in Little Rock, where The Eldership will not reveal how the money is spent, is an abuse! Yet, many churches are run by a Board of Elders who believe that it's up to them to spend the "Lord's Money" properly and they have "the right to exercise final decisions in matters of judgment.''(3) Smith claims that they should check with the members first so they won't "lord it over" anyone; but the final decision does belong to them. What then did the Board of Elders in Little Rock do wrong? Is not the revealing of how the "Lord's Money" is spent a matter of judgment? Is it an abuse or is Little Rock simply practicing what J.T. Smith and many others preach?
What we practice is a part of us. The reason Luther had such difficulty in abandoning the Catholic Church is that be had practiced its tenets for so long that it became part of him. Why do so many refuse to accept the fact that baptism is essential to salvation? Not because the Holy Spirit hasn't made it clear enough, but rather it is equal to admitting we are wrong. Most men would rather be run over by a truck than admit they are wrong.
Our ideas are often like our children. We never had a bad one. Someone else may err, but not a "church of Christer"! Not me. Our concept of the church is that it is infallibly right about everything. We are ALL right and everybody else is ALL wrong. Thus only we are going to heaven.
The Jews had the same problem. Paul wrote to them, "But if thou bearest the name of a Jew, and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou --thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth; thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?" (Romans 2:17-21). The Jews were proud and arrogant. They felt certain God had accepted them and rejected everyone else. Their practice had become a part of them so that instead of being "a guide of the blind" they instead had "their eyes...closed," (Acts 28:27). They taught others but not themselves.
If Martin Luther and the Jews could be thus affected...what about you and me? Are we practicing abuses? Is it really a mere abuse or is it our actual practice resulting from our erroneous concept?
1 History of the Christian Church. (Page 157, Vol. 7)
2. Preface to Luther's Collected Works. (1545)
3. The Castleberry Bulletin, Fort Worth, TX, October 16, 1985.