The problem of the authoritarian leadership style of elders over a local church was discussed in the May Examiner. In smaller cities, away from the South and Southwest, there may be no elders in the "local churches." Decision-making then usually resides in the business meeting, where a leadership of three or four aggressive, take-charge men emerges. They exert power equal to that of elders in larger churches.
Especially attracted to such roles are men who have not "made it" on the outside either socially, economically or educationally, and so the local church is their one chance on earth to exert power and become a "wheel" in a peer group. Unfortunately, such entrenched individuals very often lack the sensitivity and maturity to handle delicate people-people problems and manage disputes. The result: a painfully weak leadership and ultimately church division.
In many places. Christians are dividing because doctrinal differences are elevated to the point of questioning motives when differences and alienations arise, ultimately severing fellowship itself. It is insisted that everyone must see all teaching alike. Should someone express opposing views, tension then mounts, creating arguments and strife and wild charges of "false teacher." Long-standing friendship and brotherly deference come to a crashing end.
Brethren have divided over dozens of issues, among them whether or not there can be weddings and funerals in the church buildings, Sunday evening Lord's Supper, Bible classes, etc. When every difference in teaching or practice is elevated to a "matter of faith" severing fellowship, then another "sad, tragic story" has unfolded.
A few years ago a preacher in Texas wrote about the pathetic story of a small town church that had lost nearly half of its members because of strained relations brought about by brethren getting "crossed up over a bunch of opinions." He wrote:
"This...is not an isolated case by any means. Many conservative (?) churches are majoring in minors, pushing opinions as matters of faith and gospel, resulting in divided churches, alienated brethren and hindrances to spiritual growth..."
"Brethren pride themselves in 'standing for the truth' when the truth of God in the New Testament says nothing about the opinions they hold so dear as they make these opinions matters of faith and conscience within themselves. Then they bind these 'matters of faith' on others, wanting their consciences to be everyone else's guide. Such attitudes are widespread and growing."
This preacher is not alone in witnessing the strangulation of once strong local churches by a few self-willed men determined to rule or ruin. One prominent preacher echoed this preacher's sentiments in the Gospel Advocate, lamenting the fact that many once great and active churches now wither on the vine. A Florida preacher recently pointedly asked, "Which city in this country, with one or more congregations, has not seen them fighting, devouring, and fracturing, over and over, leaving them bleeding and dying? Such are totally ineffective for any purpose except to spew their venom of poison over [the] brotherhood."
In another mid-size city we shall call Oakdale, the 130-member conservative church in 1980 adequately met in one place. They have divided twice, and now the three churches together number less than 90 among them. This year one of the "mainline" churches split over control of the building and whether or not the trustees possessed this power. They did, forcing out the majority. Such carnality ill befits those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace.
The six local churches of Oakdale have virtually nothing to do with each other, claiming separateness based on (1) strained interpretations of certain Bible texts; (2) mixture of proof texts and tradition to sustain particular beliefs; and (3) doctrine based upon the silence of scripture, and upon man-made distinctions. Thus the Oakdale saints differ in legalistic ways which become the decisive factors that determine whether or not a person is fit for fellowship, a teaching position or to be just plain "one of us."
Anyone who dares to challenge the unyielding rule of the three or four "bosses" is subject to insults, whisperings, backbitings, and ultimately excommunication. These are the inevitable result of legalism, for no one must dare to differ on what they have proclaimed "the doctrine of this church." To bend to accomodate another's "faith" (Rom. 14) would to them show weakness or sin; it is lineup as we decree or get out. The "pillars" in charge are short on compassion and forebearance and display an unwillingness to talk out problems or meet for study, presuming to reason for God. Controlling every situation is the key.
It is cruel to set brother against brother, church against church. Blame of factionalism not only lies with the sower of discord but also with all who are willing to be influenced by falsehood and innuendo. Reasonable saints ask, "Why? Why? Why?" The greatest problem is not a vital doctrinal issue but rather that brethren cannot - will not - get along with each other, showing partiality (James 2:lff).
Each splinter group in Oakdale proclaims Jesus as Lord and His Will as law. But it is the doctrinal eccentricities, spiked with human notions, that have divided the brethren there, with leaders pushing their will on remarriage, methods of discipline, role of women in the assembly, singing and prayer to Jesus, "scriptural" occupations, how to unify, and a host of other issues all couched in dogmatism. Some even choke up on commitment and discipleship, as if these were not in the Bible.
The great cause of division is legalism, and like the poor, it will always be with us. The legalist sees salvation as based on a law of commandments to be kept to the letter, to which he can respond with considerable success but never with complete satisfaction. Thus the legalist prays for forgiveness to cover the deficiency. Legalists claim that the law sustains a direct relationship to righteousness and that it serves as the basis for justification and fellowship.
It is this authoritative stance and heavyhandedness that makes the legalist dangerous. His prejudices filter out all evidence contrary to the status quo. His mind is caught on one rung of the ladder where he is hung up on dotting i's and crossing t's. He is right on everything, and in his closed-mindedness he asks no questions, nor does he bother to prove anything - he merely asserts. He has eventually traded his humanity for a narrow world of stock answers to meaningless questions.
The legalist is the grand inquisitor of "pure doctrine," interpreting motives and displaying gross lack of trust in others. In all of his strenuous efforts to stamp out false teachers, he polarizes Christ's body. "The body must not be contaminated by error," they say. His heresy hunts blatantly ignore Paul's commands against physicial division, for such are justified "to keep the purity of the church." Pshaw! In reality, he is the guardian of the party who has closed the door to a study of differences and constructive healing dialogue.
A shallow, shoot first and ask questions later approach to problems hides the reality of the legalist's ugly mental attitude, hemmed in by spiritual blinders. To him the Bible is not a source of spiritual enlightment but rather a debater's handbook from which to pluck out arguments and verses to stomp the opposition. Winners of confrontations freely brag to others about the scalps accumulated on their war bonnets.
In his egotism the legalist is a prisoner. His strange morality and logic, when challenged, results in unhealthy pride, arrogance and displays of anger. He responds to arguments by reviling the promulgator. He plays the blame-game if the church splits or fails to grow because others have "bad attitudes."
The legalist grossly misunderstands the purpose of the law. In efforts to encourage dependence and control of others, he torments them by asking painfully negative introspective questions: Am I prayerful enough? Do I attend enough? Am I observant enough? Have I overlooked some unforgiven sin? His converts are as ugly as he is and similarly begin to feast on authority and exclusivism. With dry eyes and a smug smile they lift up their noses against all others whom they have branded as troublemakers. They like to do the thinking for you, regulating all phases of the church, as well.
In short, the grim-faced legalist is a spiritual pygmy, insecure, joyless, belligerent, irritable, driven to impose his will on others regardless of the facts. He defines life by simplistic rules that in reality become his security blanket. If there is no law on a certain subject, he makes one up! He is DANGEROUS because he is AFRAID. He will not tolerate democratic concepts and allow equality and open discussions, for he is the self-styled guardian of the flock.
In contrast to the hemmed-in world and catechism of legalism, the reality is that in every local work there are many different and diverse sets of beliefs about a multitude of positions. Conscientious brethren detest a "my way or else attitude." Indeed, Christians of good will and character do differ without animosity (Acts 15:39-40; Gal. 2:11-14; 2 Tim. 4:11; 2 Pet. 3:15-16). Very few issues need to be tests of fellowship. Paul, in Ephesians 4:1-7 concisely lists what truly matters in our religious life, showing how we can practice unity with forebearing love.
We will never see the Bible alike, nor has this ever been required by God. But the legalist says, "God is not the author of confusion. He revealed his perfect law to His creation in the Bible.'' True, but it is man who has caused the confusion. It is further said that the Bible is inspired and the words are God-breathed. Again correct, but nobody is an inspired interpreter of the word, though the legalist may think he is. All sermons are merely someone's beliefs about the truth.
Doctrinal conflicts are usually inflated out of proportion, and disputants tend to forget broad areas of agreement. These church leaders are intent on inflicting spiritual mass suicide as they emphasize doctrinal differences and constantly review another member's past mistakes. Evidently, they do not indeed forgive and forget. They seldom invite outsiders to the meetings, since regulating the doctrines of the saints is the "high spiritual work." Far from being fishers of men, they are merely keepers of the aquarium.
The Bible never speaks of unity in doctrinal conformity; nevertheless it is attained in our relationship to Christ and not because Christians see eye to eye on everything. Distinction in values, diverse backgrounds, levels of maturity and educational development all guarantee differences. Not everything is "black and white" and a matter of faith. Distinguishing between the express declaration of Scripture and man's reasonings and conclusions from it is a lesson that legalists must clearly learn.
In Romans 15:7, Paul succinctly states the basis of fellowship: "Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ has received you." The Lord receives us in an imperfect state, and so we can accept other brethren whose lives fall short of the ideal. Discussion of differences should take place, but never in the context of denying privileges, marking or otherwise restricting fellowship. Division over such differences is never an alternative approved by the Lord.
Fellowship does not necessitate or imply endorsement. It is always between individuals - brotherhood, not church-hood. Unity is realized when all appreciate our relationship with Christ. We are brethren, not warring aliens! Therefore, let us practice brotherly kindness and love the saints, both good and ugly, ever praying to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-7; John 17:20-21). Have you prayed for unity lately?
The worst thing that Christians can do is to sit by and let three or four leaders continue their rule and ruin reign month after month, year after year, allowing the rest of the flock to slowly die of spiritual malnutrition. The elite must allow broad participation not only in leadership slots but also in every other phase of the assembly. The "one another" functions mentioned 90 times in the New Testament means "taking turns." Get everyone with ability involved in some work.
Idle brains are the fertile ground for legalistic activity. As church disturbances occur and reoccur, the membership sits by conditioned to a false belief that similar disturbances take place in every church. The rank and file have been browbeaten, put down, and intimidated for so long that they have chosen to submit to the lusty leadership of a few rather than oppose their pressure political tactics (see Jas. 4:4). So people sell out - resign to the inevitable - and go to sleep.
We do not have to accept mediocrity. Awake, Christians! Speak up for your rights. Name names. Recognize that the church's spiritual mission is more than party line sermons by amateur leaders. Christians must come out of the closet. Do this by starting to talk about the Lord yourselves - everywhere. Becoming "all things to all men...to save some" (I Cor. 9:22), means rising from our comfy church pews and actively working in society for the glory of God.
This means participating in life. Though we are not of the world, we are in the world. Soldiers merely rehearsing denominational doctrines among themselves make poor defenders on the outside. Christians must not retreat from PTA and other neighborhood meetings or worthy political causes. This involves spending time, money and other resources. Faith pays a price of possibly encountering badgering or molestation. But the proclaiming of truth to those in darkness both in and out of the church is worth the pain.
Churches must not get involved in social issues, it is argued. But sometimes the line between pure spiritual works and other disciplines is not distinct. Priorities do not eliminate secondary obligations. Even women can be keepers at home and still join Eagle Forum, the Right to Life movement, and political action groups which oppose such things as evolution, unisex bathrooms, gay rights, sex education. Our children are too young to be exposed to homosexual teachers.
Qualified saints should present lessons on these and other issues to edify uninformed Christians. It is both political and spiritual reform we seek when we ask that civil laws address abortion, the dispensing of birth control devices in schools, pornographic films and literature. Christians do have an obligation to orphans who are considered for adoption by homosexuals. Should we not defend the fatherless by asking for their protection (Isa. 1:17)?
On these matters, some say, "Let God take care of it. I'll not cause controversy by opposing the three or four men who run this congregation." This borders on hypocrisy. God's hands are our hands, and God's feet are our feet. We must get involved and not bury our talents. We should be concerned about not only mature church leadership but also electing God-fearing men to public office who will enact good legislation. Both are spiritual "missions.'' Christians ought to insist that the "powers that be" meet their God-given responsibilities (Rom. 13:3-4).
Let us awake! Why sit and die spiritually by tolerating "little tin gods" over our service to God (see 2 Kings 7:3). Let us also expose the cunning tactics of left-wing politicians and their lack of reverence toward the God of heaven. The responsibility for good leadership in serving God, and in political and educational atmospheres rests not only with "George" but with all of us - that's you, you, you, you, you and me.