“It’s 2022, the Bible says nothing about (Insert church action) how on earth are they still (Doing/not doing) that!” If you have spent any amount of time in a local church, you have likely heard this or some similar sentiment once or a hundred times. The fact is, many decisions made by church leaders have little to do with biblical fidelity, rather, they are concerned with the maintenance of the local church as an institution. The Lord has given us exactly what he intended in our Bibles—but what he did not give us is an exhaustive list of how to practically conduct the business of local churches in the 21st century. Of the hundreds of decisions made by church leaderships, many lack clear Biblical guidance one way or another:
- What kind of building should worship service be in?
- How long should the worship service be?
- Should there be pews?
- Should there be air conditioning/heating?
- What kind of communion elements should be used?
- How should they be distributed?
- How should meetings be conducted?
- Should leadership meet in public or private?
- Should churches employ full-time employees?
- Should their salary information be available for the body?
Others perhaps have some Biblical guidance but lack specific instructions.
- Should offerings be collected in the worship service?
- Should announcements be made during the worship service? (Who is permitted to give those announcements?)
- Should all speaking roles be limited to qualified elders?
- Can those elders delegate that authority to qualified persons?
In ages past the bulk of these decisions were guided by denominational hierarchy or associational custom. Loyalty to denomination was a powerful identity marker and thus the congregants (more often than not) were more apt to defend church practices rather than question them. Much has changed since then. The advent of the internet upset this balance in two fundamental ways.
First, it has expanded the front porch of every church in the world. No longer does a person have to enter a “rival church” (risking community reproach) to learn about their practices and beliefs. Second, every believer has access to thousands of arguments for and against every decision a church could make. When I was a child, I was taught (through jokes mostly) that Baptism was optional for Baptists. “The Sinners Prayer” was all that was necessary for salvation and entrance into the church. Listening to a few Baptist sermons via podcasts and reading a few statements of faith online utterly torched the straw man fixed so firmly in my mind. Before the digital age it is quite possible that this misconception would be my permanent understanding of my Baptist brothers and sisters. I’ve been spared this error, but what remains is a suspicion of my own church tradition. What else have we gotten wrong? Can I trust the wisdom of my elders? How do I determine what is right?
There has been a reckoning since the advent of the Google search; no longer can churches tell stories about themselves and their theological neighbors without cross-examination. No longer can churches make decisions in a denominational vacuum. No longer can we isolate ourselves from “the world” of ideas around us. The siege is over, the city walls are in ruins. Now we must learn to live in occupied territory. Such a state of affairs is nothing to panic about—the church has thrived without cultural power for much of its history—but living in the transition can be both discouraging and perplexing. I want to offer a framework that may help make sense of why churches do what they do when it often seems inexplicable.
Above is a chart on which just about every decision every church makes can be mapped. On the x-axis, we have a range of “Biblically Impermissible” to “Biblically Permissible,”. Biblically permissible decisions would be doing things which the Bible commands, encourages, or says nothing about while Biblically impermissible decisions would be failing to do something the Bible commands or doing something the Bible prohibits. On the y-axis, we have a range between “Institutionally Permissible” to “Institutionally Impermissible.” Institutionally permissible decisions are decisions which are approved without controversy by individuals in a congregation. Institutionally impermissible decisions are decisions which provoke controversy, disagreement, and even departure from the particular local church. Every decision that is made or avoided by any church can be plotted on this matrix.
Q1 Biblically and Institutionally Permissible: Decisions here are no brainers and hopefully make up a majority of our church’s decisions.
Q2 Biblically Impermissible but Institutionally Permissible: This quadrant is the worst—it’s the racism, segregation, going to temple prostitutes (looking at you, Corinth) quadrant. God help us rid ourselves of this quadrant.
Q3 Biblically Impermissible and Institutionally Impermissible: No church is really in danger from this quadrant. It is the quadrant Preachers draw from when they need an example of something sinful—but don’t want to call anyone out. Think baptizing cats.
Q4 Biblically Permissible but Institutionally Impermissible: This quadrant will create the most debate and is the source of the quote that started this whole paper off. It is also the quadrant that is often most misunderstood. It is a category where leaders ask congregants to submit to extra restrictions for the sake of maintaining community. These decisions would fall in Paul’s category of adiaphora laid out in 1 Corinthians 8-10 or Romans 14-15. (Note: matters of 1st importance would fall into the “Biblically Impermissible category”)
A faithful church will be living in between Q1 and Q4, and they will be making most of their decisions in the Q1 range while challenging the church with Q4 choices to help them care more about biblical fidelity than cultural preference. Unfortunately, life is not as simple as the graph; there is not a church where total agreement on the placement of the axes exists. The more diversity you add to a church (intergenerational, gender, ethnic, socioeconomic), the more variance one will find between each individual’s matrix and the local church’s actual decisions. In an ideal world, the church members would be submitted to their leadership, and the leadership would not be wearisome rulers. We ought to strive towards that—but that is not most American churches as we find them.
Let’s look at a test case on an issue which splits some churches today—“Does scripture permit speaking roles to women during corporate worship?” (Q4/Q1). In some local churches, if the leadership were to permit women to speak during corporate worship, it would cause such a controversy that it would likely destroy the entire institution. In these cases, leadership has decided the controversy is not worth destroying the church over—and so it asks its female members to submit themselves to a further restriction for the sake of the particular local church. It is a live question of whether this compromise is prudent or even Biblical. Is such an institution creating a stumbling block to the proclamation of the gospel for our egalitarian culture by barring women from speaking roles? Is leadership wise in not allowing the whims of white western secular culture to dictate our church practices? Or is such a leadership harming women in our churches for the sake of an unbiblical patriarchal tradition? (Q2 rather than Q4).
The task of local church leaders is to make these difficult decisions faithfully and prudently. Church leaders are leaders for both the “conservative” and “progressive” members. They are called to love and lead the church as they find it—not as they wish they found it. We followers are called to love the church and submit to the elders as we find them—not as we wish we did. In any given case we may be right and our institutions wrong. Perhaps not, regardless we ought to recognize that our private opinion on a given controversy is not the only meaningful concern in a local church’s decision. Christians are called to love one another and value others before ourselves. This is a costly practice—especially when we are completely convinced that we are right and our opponents wrong. I want to suggest something radical in our polarized era. Patience and understanding with our opponents is more helpful than denouncement and anathema.
Christ’s church will stand throughout the ages. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church and we are saved by the cross of Christ not our understanding of secondary issues. The times will inevitably change, and tomorrow’s culture will bring a new set of challenges before the church of our children and grandchildren. Christ’s church is in no peril of defeat. Different questions will be asked and churches will faithfully respond. Inevitably, our children will blush at our current controversies and politely distance themselves from some of our current positions, and that is as it should be. We will be with Jesus, and they will be creatively sorting out the mess we made.
- see Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy, “Single or Triple Melting-Pot? Intermarriage Trends in New Haven, 1870–1940,” The American journal of Sociology 49, no. 4 (Jan. 1944): 333; ↑