CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

How Not To Do Church

Aug 25, 2013

In the Christian world, things are supposed to go basically like this: the Bible is our authoritative guide for faith and practice; our theology should flow from the Bible; and our practice should flow from our theology. In very simple diagrammatic terms, it should look like this:

Bible
Theology, beliefs
Practice, experience

And in that order. But far too often in our churches and other Christian organisations we actually find this order reversed. Instead of letting the Word of God sit in judgment over what we believe and what we do, we allow our practice and experience to be the final arbiter.

We begin with our finite and fallen experience, create our theology out of and around that, and then in turn rewrite Scripture to fit in. In other words we have the order completely turned upside down, and in far too many places it now looks like this:

Practice, experience
Theology, beliefs
Bible

We have allowed the experiences we find in the pews to shape and influence our theology, and that has been allowed to shape and influence the way we read Scripture. We see this played out in so many areas. Consider any moral issue of the day, and see it at work in our churches.

Is divorce a huge problem in the world? Yep. Is it also a huge problem in our churches? Yep. So how do we deal with this? Too often denominations, churches and pastors deal with it according to my second diagram. They see plenty of folks in their congregations who are divorced or getting divorced.

So they allow that experience to determine how they do their theology, and how they understand the Bible. Instead of beginning with Scripture and working down from there, they begin with human experience, and work their way up from there.

So we increasingly cave in, compromise, and capitulate on the issue. Instead of upholding the very high biblical standard of marital fidelity, we simply dumb down our churches and go with the flow. And this is not just speculation on my part. I am aware of entire denominations which have done this very thing.

They have actually re-written their policy statements on marriage, divorce and remarriage for the simple reason that their churches are awash with divorcees. So instead of letting Scripture inform their policies, they allow personal experience to inform them instead.

Thus formerly strict church policies have been jettisoned and much more relaxed and compromised policies are brought in to take their place. This lets all the folks in the pews off the hook, and allows them to be more comfortable. But it comes at great cost of course.

The Word of God is watered down, twisted around, or ignored. The experience of the members becomes the determining factor of how policy is established, instead of the unchanging Word of God. In the interests of keeping the numbers up – and the weekly offering pouring in – way too many churches simply drop the standards to keep the masses happy and in the pews.

And of course to put experience first means we must overlook or repudiate large blocks of Scripture. A church which wants to go soft on an issue such as this has no choice but to play down or avoid altogether those passages which take a stronger line. Texts like Malachi 2:16 will simply never get a hearing in such places.

It is the same with plenty of other issues. Homosexuality is another obvious one. Instead of letting Scripture have the final word on this, we allow personal experience to be the final arbiter. Pastors find same-sex attracted people in their congregations, and don’t want to offend or alienate them. So they soften their policy positions so they can more easily fit in.

Again, I am aware of entire denominations which have rewritten their policy on this topic as well. And it is the same old excuse: “But we have people in our congregations who are attracted to those of the same sex. We don’t want to lose them. We don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”

They might as well say they have members who have adulterous or promiscuous desires and attractions, and we must cater to them as well. They would conveniently forget passages such as Matthew 5:27-30. Since when have sinful desires and passions become acceptable?

So once again, experience trumps the Word of God. Now let me say at this point that I am of course not saying we do not need pastoral sympathy and wisdom in dealing with tough situations in our churches. I am not saying some abstract, theoretical stance which has no bearing on reality must be clung to.

But I am saying that the Bible should be the source of authority here, not the various experiences of the people in the pews. Yes we want to have pastoral care, we want to be aware of the struggles people have, and we want to be sensitive to the needs and problems of others.

We must be careful and gracious as we approach these sorts of issues. But that should not take the form of lowered biblical standards. It should not come at the expense of revealed truth. It should not come about because we are more concerned about offending man than we are about offending our Lord.

And of course it is not just our churches which are engaged in this sort of unhelpful and unbiblical compromise. Christian institutions are caving in as well. Consider the recent case of Fuller Theological Seminary in California for example.

It has actually approved a student organisation for homosexual students. This is the first US evangelical seminary to move down that road. Once again, it is taking the experience they encounter and letting that mould their policy, and even the way they handle Scripture.

They think this is a necessary step, and one which will not have any untoward ramifications. They are of course simply living in dreamland. We can almost guarantee that this will simply be the thin edge of the wedge. First allow the group on campus; then see their demands escalate; soon enough the whole hog will be demanded.

They will expect theology courses to affirm the homosexual lifestyle. They will demand counselling courses be pro-homosexual. They will insist that homosexual marriage be approved of and permitted, even on campus. Don’t think so? Just watch.

And if this group can get official permission to run as a campus club, what is to stop an adultery group or polyamory group from also demanding their “rights” to be on campus? Fuller has simply opened a Pandora’s Box here which they will find cannot be re-closed.

While the President has come out with a statement trying to reassure folks that the line on sexuality will not move, I wonder if he is not being a bit naive. A mere homosexual club will not be the end of things as I already said. And it may be that the rot has already set in at Fuller on this issue. Consider the remarks of Tony Jones:

“Fuller Seminary is both my alma mater (M.Div.) and a part-time employer (I teach a cohort in the D.Min. program). As far as I know, I am one of two faculty members at Fuller who publicly supports gay marriage and the full inclusion of GLBT persons in ordained ministry. As such, I’ve had many conversations about the issue of gays in the church with alumni, faculty, and administrators. I have the most conversations with prospective students, many of them gay and wondering if they will find Fuller a hospitable place.”

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council rightly said that “Fuller should not be sanctioning such a group but be teaching reorientation as the students’ best option.” Quite right. But instead of offering them help and hope in Christ in turning their lives around. Fuller looks like it is buying much of the homosexual agenda – hook, line and sinker.

And far too many pastors, churches and denominations have done the same. Man has become the centre of all things. Human experience trumps sound theology and the clear teachings of Scripture. No wonder the church is in decline all over the West.

Personal experience has become king, and Scripture now takes a backseat. That is certainly not how we are to do church – or Christian ministry. But it is a great way to destroy the church and the faith. Turning all this around will not be easy. We can start by praying for our pastors and leaders. They sure need it.

And we can also thank God for all those pastors, leaders, churches and denominations which have stood strong and not compromised, capitulated, and lowered their standards. Praise God for these folks: they have not allowed experience to sit in judgment over God’s Word, but they stand fast in allowing God’s Word to sit in judgment over human experience.

www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2013/07/16/gay-students-at-fuller-seminary/
www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2013/July/Fuller-Seminary-Allows-First-LGBT-Campus-Group/

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16 Responses to How Not To Do Church

  • Just a thought. Why should we pray for pastors that are leading the sheep astray? Should it be a case of praying Lord, get rid of him?

    Roger Marks

  • Malachi 2:16 goes onto to say “Do not break faith” meaning it`s a choice.

    Johannes Archer

  • “Why should we pray for pastors that are leading the sheep astray?”

    Roger. I wonder if this is not ‘passing the buck’?.

    I agree with some comments Jon Zens made recently in this context – so accurate and to the point I think:

    “Assembly-life is the context for decision-making. Leaders are never mentioned in what Jesus teaches about problem-resolution in Matthew 18:15-20.
    The final context is “take it to the congregation.”

    The NT letters were written to assemblies, not to leaders. The Corinthian church had a lot of issues, but Paul assumed that the body could take care of them – “when you come together as a body” (1 Cor. 5:4). Leaders are never chided for failing in their responsibilities.

    Traditional church practice puts decision-making, and the nuts-and-bolts of church machinery in the hands of “leaders.” The New Testament puts the responsibility of carrying out the will of Christ on the shoulders of the entire body.”

    Perhaps this is the nub of the problem here, and yes, pastors/elders have an important role to play in the direction any assembly takes, but if believers themselves remain totally passive and refuse to exercise discernment and/or take action when such situations arise, often almost imperceptibly, – then all that Bill points out is almost inevitable IMO.
    Graham Wood, UK

  • Roger, we can pray for restoration of true preaching, surely?

    So whether God does it by removing them or changing them so that they preach truly, should it matter?

    John Angelico

  • I guess you have to work out if these pastors are genuine cowards or just a bit weak and would come right with a bit of encouragement and comfort in the true sense of the word. I believe it means being made strong together and that sort of true comfort isn’t always comfortable. Anyway, they should at least be given the benefit of the doubt to see if they are still able to respond to conviction.
    Only 100 years ago or so the church and the state were on the same page pretty much, both affirming what is right and what is wrong in God’s eyes in their own sphere of authority. We know the culture has gone away from that, and the state followed the culture rather than God. The change happened so subtly that it was hard to notice, so maybe the church started copying what the culture did, not realizing how far away from God it had gone, though they surely should have since the world itself was always away from God. Never the less, the church started copying the success stories of the world when it became worried about “attendance rates” and didn’t process their actions through faith and reason first and there was nobody to tell them otherwise, because to have done so would have been so terribly “unloving and intolerant”.

    Many blessings
    Ursula
    Bennett

  • Gays in the pews. And we all know what they’re doing there, right?
    Linda Menzies

  • The church as a whole is not following the Bible anymore. Which makes it confusing for the average person who walks into a church on any given Sunday.
    The elders don’t need to be upstanding people of the community and neither do their children etc and well the list goes on. In my church it’s come down to, if you believe Jesus is the son of God and you have given your heart to Him then you’re in.
    Look don’t get me wrong I’m not one for pomp and ceremony, but I would like to know where I stand as to what’s expected of me and everyone else, and if we get confused, no worries just look up what Paul the apostle has to say about it and its settled, easy.
    Daniel kempton

  • Graham Wood I agree with you, Paul, when correcting the Corinthian church did not privately address the leaders rather his letter of rebuke was read openly to the entire church. It seems with church hierarchy where it exists they are the real problem as they decide for the congregation what is right or wrong and often they adopt views that reflect the opinion of secular society. This is a disgrace! Bill correctly points out that in these controversial circumstances ‘scripture takes a back seat’.
    Kevin McDonald

  • So many allow their morality to dictate instead of allowing theology to dominate.
    Judith Bond

  • Can those of us who believe on the true word form a church where we can come to worship in truth than all this pussy footing hypocritical preaching we have to put up with from cowardly preachers?

    Patrick Brahams

  • Thanks for your thought-provoking article, Bill. It made me wonder what it must have been like for people to walk and talk with Jesus Himself 2000 years ago, to see Him curing people, forgiving their sins and to even raise people from the dead. Then of course people would also have heard Him make some statements about what they needed to do in order to follow Him. To eat His very Body and drink His Blood; to actually forgive and even bless those who would persecute them; to take up one’s own cross and follow Him.
    To risk everything for His sake and all the while to trust in Him regardless of the consequences and what the world thinks.
    For many, Jesus’ words were confusing to hear and difficult to accept when He was on earth, and so they walked away. To me, our situation today would seem to be somewhat similar. What can we do about it?
    My suggestion is that we pray for our preachers, that they will preach what Jesus Himself taught, trusting in God and regardless of the consequences.

    John Ferwerda

  • I haven’t been impressed with Fuller since they dodged and waffled, opposed and feared ‘guilt by association’ on the issue of upholding the inerrancy of Scripture. This is simply more of the same, sadly.

    Someone posted on the congregations taking care to be the corrective. In some church government contexts this can be a means God uses. In other contexts it is the pocketbook, and in still others when the knee jerk drift and dumbing down is entrenched, to come out and be separate. It is sometimes true that ‘if the people lead, the leaders will follow’. My sense is that Fuller reads the NY and LA Times and all that “good science” and “good” polling data and they imagine, contrary to referendum after referendum that they ARE in fact doing just this, listening to ‘the people’.

    I suppose Bill that you could have put ‘consensus real or imagined’ in your list of authorities before Scripture in your modernist/postmodernist neo-orthodoxy/liberal trajectory. The shoe would have fit. But in some cases ‘if the shoe does fit’, one should (instead of wearing it) cast it off and do without.

    Ezekiel 34 talks about such shepherds, or in this case the trainer of shepherds. They imagine by not speaking truth and demonstrating repentance and nourishing and bringing corrective healing and restoration to the flock, that they are ‘loving’ them as well as gaining their tuition fees. What they are actually doing is injuring, scattering, destroying, and consuming. And too much of the evanjellyfish-lite ‘church’ is just copacetic. Which is of course complicit.

    Joe Whitchurch, Indiana USA

  • Bill,
    Thanks for presenting so simply and clearly the way to do church and not to do church.
    Years ago the then Principal of a Denominational Theological College in Queensland told me that his college sat ‘under the judgement of the Bible’, whereas the Victorian college of the same denomination sat ‘in judgement on the Bible’.
    I suppose such a change in attitude comes about quite subtly. Subtle deception being a major tool of the enemy.
    I can think of one denomination whose purpose seems to be to promote political correctness rather than biblical Truth. I wonder how long a biblical Christian can stay in such a church/denomination without becoming affected/infected.
    I suppose that we each need to determine before God with which church we need to be connected.

    John Gillespie

  • Why did these people have to bow to pressure? SMH today.

    The pentecostal Christian school chosen by Tony Abbott as the site of his education policy launch has decided to review its policy declaring homosexuality an abomination just hours after the Coalition visit.
    The language that they’ve used in that statement comes from an older translation of the Bible, it’s not in step with modern language and doesn’t reflect the attitude that the school has to the treatment of people who identify as homosexual

    The Opposition Leader visited a Penrith Christian School to talk about values and announce detail of the Coalition’s plan to turn public schools into independent schools, but his visit thrust the school and its homophobic statement into the national spotlight.
    The school, a preparatory to Year 12 school in Sydney’s western suburbs, forces parents to sign a Statement of Faith before their kids can enrol.
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    The statement lists a range of views, including that homosexuality and homosexual acts are ”abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into” as well as statements supporting divine healing and creationism.
    The policy was now under review, according to Christian Schools Australia, which says the wording has been ”misunderstood” and that gay and lesbian students are treated with care.
    Mr Abbott said he disagreed with the Statement of Faith but said Penrith Christian School was a ”good school”.
    ”Look, this is a good school and it is a school which has been supported by people like [Labor MPs] David Bradbury and Peter Garrett.
    ”I respectfully disagree with lots of things that are said on that particular subject and obviously I disagree with that one.”
    Mr Bradbury and former Education Minister Peter Garrett opened a Trade Training Centre at the school earlier this year.
    Mr Abbott went on to announce his policy within the school hall, which is used for services of the Imagine Nations Pentecostal church on weekends.
    Asked whether public schools might pursue policies like Penrith Christian School under the Coalition’s policy, Mr Abbott said no.
    ”The Independent Schools in Western Australia and the more autonomous public schools here in NSW are obviously bound by departmental and government policy on these sorts of issues,” he said.School principal Bruce Neville was unrepentant when questioned on the stance by reporters at the school.
    ”We are not considering renewing our statement of faith at the moment,” Mr Neville said.
    But Stephen O’Doherty, chief executive officer of Christian Schools Australia, contradicted that statement hours later.
    ”Because of the capacity for it to be misunderstood, the school is going to review the way in which the policy is worded,” he said.
    ”The language that they’ve used in that statement comes from an older translation of the Bible, it’s not in step with modern language and doesn’t reflect the attitude that the school has to the treatment of people who identify as homosexual.”
    Mr O’Doherty denied students at the school who were gay were taught their own sexuality was a perversion and said such a suggestion was “offensive”.
    ”The school has over the years dealt with many students who are struggling with issues of sexuality; it’s dealt with those students with great care and compassion and provided lots of pastoral care for those kids at a very difficult time in their lives,” he said.
    ”People are accepted for who they are, that is a key teaching.”
    The events come amid a push by Sydney MP Alex Greenwich to overturn laws which allow private schools to discriminate against or expel students for being gay.
    Under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, private educational authorities are exempt from provisions protecting students from discrimination on their basis of their sexuality or transgender status.
    with Peter Munro and AAP

    Read more: www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/homosexuality-is-no-longer-an-abomination-says-penrith-christian-school-20130829-2st05.html#ixzz2dLOIHhH9

    Jo Deller

  • @ Patrick,

    There are still some very good churches around if you’re willing to seek them out.

    As a general rule, they are the few that can be seen out on the streets reaching out to the lost following the Great Commission.

    Of course, this rule does not include the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses as they are unbiblical cults.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • John, preaching was not a feature of the New Testament Church. Being real with each other was. Preaching was usually to unbelievers.

    Mario, what constitutes a good church?

    Roger Marks

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