The Pre-Schooler and the Pistol

Today’s post is by Chaplain Mike.

Last year, here in Indianapolis, a four-year-old was taken by emergency personnel to the hospital with a gunshot wound. At first, it was not clear what had happened. The family told police the child had shot himself. The police weren’t sure that the preschooler was strong enough to have pulled the trigger of the suspected weapon by himself, and so they wondered if someone else had done it, perhaps a family member.

It turned out the family was correct. The little boy lived in a home with other relatives, at least one of whom had several guns. This uncle left one of his pistols on a bedside table and the child discovered it there. The preschooler picked up, played with it, and shot himself in the hand. Fortunately, his injuries were not life-threatening, though he did nearly sever one of his fingers. All in all, the whole family was lucky, including the little boy’s two siblings, neither of whom were hurt.

In evangelicalism, pastors too often play the part of the preschooler with the pistol.

The Bible is a powerful, explosive tool. When its power is used with wisdom and love, it brings healing, comfort, direction, and salvation. It forms people and congregations into the image of Christ. When its power is used recklessly and without discernment, the Bible can hurt, divide, and destroy. You can blow your own hand off, or someone else’s head.
At about the same time I read the account of that little boy, a friend told me a sad story about her small-town church, an established, independent Bible-believing congregation that has long prided itself for standing on the Scriptures and not the doctrines of men. They have a young pastor who has been with them only a few years. A while ago, he came to the “Biblical conviction” that they were not running their congregation according to what the Bible teaches about church polity.

At the time, they had a joint board of elders and deacons, which included women deaconesses as well. The board made decisions together as leaders of the church. The pastor did a study and concluded that elders alone should rule the church, that deacons should not be included in the decision-making process, and that in any case, women should not be allowed a vote as leaders on church matters. So, he put the congregation through an extended process to change this, and ultimately got his way through a congregational vote to alter the bylaws.

My friend was one of a vocal minority who spoke against this, and the pastor let her know that her lack of support had been noted. She didn’t tell me much about how others felt, or whether this situation threatened to divide the church. However, it was clear that she was troubled and concerned about the health of the church.

And then she told me the kicker—while all this was going on, the pastor has been actively pursuing a position in another congregation. He will be leaving soon, right after taking my friend’s church through this controversial process and forcing a change in the way they’ve done things for years.

I was reminded of the preschooler and the pistol. Here is a pastor who believes in the Bible, but does not appreciate its power, nor comprehend its wise use. His reckless application of God’s Word has wounded rather than healed God’s people. Now he’s going to walk away and leave it to someone else to stop the bleeding and clean up the mess.

Let me be clear—this is not about criticizing the decision this church made. People of faith can differ on church polity and women in leadership and a thousand other matters, and have for centuries.

No, my complaint is about a minister who does not understand Biblical priorities, who showed his lack of wisdom in elevating a matter of minor significance in the church so that it became a leading issue that now threatens to divide them.

The evangelical world has an authority problem. Protestants subscribe to Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) as our source of authority for faith and practice, but we have far too little appreciation for proper interpretation and wise application of the Bible’s teaching. And too many churches and pastors, especially in the nondenominational or independent Christian world have little or no guidance in the process. The pastor or a small group of leaders, with the explosive power of the Bible in their hands, can easily use it to wound others and harm the church.

This raises several questions:

  • In an “autonomous” congregation, which eschews “tradition,” what theologically sound and historically proven practices are there to provide perspective, structure, and guidance to a pastor and members of the congregation?
  • In a small-town congregation, what pastoral mentor or overseer is available to tell a young minister, “Look, you may think you’ve discovered something in the Bible, but with regard to scriptural priorities, this is way down the list of things for a minister in your setting and situation to be concerned about.”
  • In a nondenominational congregation, what experience or counsel from the larger community of faith is available to help them work through an issue that other churches have dealt with already?

“Scripture Alone” does not mean “My Bible and Me Alone.” Scripture is meant to be studied, interpreted, and applied within a community of faith that honors and respects history and tradition, the larger Body of Christ, and the wise counsel of respected spiritual overseers.

Instead, we have too many maverick ministers recklessly taking what they find on the bedside table and firing into the crowd that gathers at the church.

85 thoughts on “The Pre-Schooler and the Pistol

  1. Over the last several years, I have become a big fan of resolving issues of scriptural interpretation (or any important church issue, for that matter) through consensus. This involves keeping an issue on the table and open for discussion until the entire church body arrives at either the same conclusion or gets close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades — meaning that while there may be different shades of interpretation or opinion still present, there’s no real contradiction or further cause for argument. Sometimes it involves reaching a collective agreement to refrain from having an official church position on those more difficult and enigmatic aspects of biblical interpretation (such as the predestination-versus-free-will thing). Some may disagree, but I don’t think a church has to have official doctrinal positions on every little thing contained in sacred scripture — and I think admitting that you’re not certain about something beyond a reasonable doubt is actually one way that we can honor God’s written word as a manifestation of truth that sometimes transcends human understanding.
    But regardless of differing methods of conflict resolution, I believe the real keys in keeping church bodies together in the face of interpretational or theological disagreements lies in maintaining a strong focus on the relational life of the church and making sure that the law of Christ-like love provides the boundaries when it comes to how disagreements are expressed and resolution is pursued. And this often requires taking an occassional break from the issue of conflict and addressing the more pressing matter of how the body is conducting itself in the midst of this conflict. Actually doing this as a church can sometimes result in a church-wide outbreak of conscience and conviction that utlimately leads to the issue of conflict being dropped by both sides. I’ve seen this happen.
    However, if that doesn’t happen and no resolution is forthcoming, I would advise independent churches to seek out an arbitrating authority — preferably one with no relational ties to anyone involved in the conflict and no discernable dogs in the race.


  2. Witnessing for Christ and preaching the gospel are two different things and I found that my kids had a better understanding of the principles by watching these Christian dvds.


  3. Matthew, when some pastors around here say they have a “Word from God,” they are claiming to have some special Spirit-inspired insight into the Bible (or, in some cases into divine wisdom apart from the Bible) that is given exclusively to them as “God’s anointed.” That’s what I meant by using that phrase. Hope that helps.


  4. I like the post, overall. One challenge is in rightly locating which issues are central and which aren’t. Most would agree that we should pick our battles and only cause a ruckus where it really counts. But many don’t agree on what counts. We could fault the pastor and discover we’re only angry because his priorities are not our priorities. But the way the story was told, I think we can see why that is not the case here. I think the frustration of seeing a pastor do this and finding he was on his way out is that he didn’t himself think that the outcome was worth sticking around to deal with. If he had drawn battle lines and then seen this matter out for a decade, there would be more tendency to think, “Okay. Maybe he had a settled conviction and really thought this needed doing.” His behavior suggests otherwise.

    We need to leave some room for people to have different convictions as to what counts as central. But even those who agree with us should count the cost of the battles they engage.


  5. Chaplain Mike,
    You write: “Furthermore, though he spouts off his convictions with great fervor, behind the scenes he really has no vested interest in the outcome. All the while he is trying to get the church to change, he himself is trying to change churches!”
    I get the point of your post. And I think in essence you are right. Though I take a bit of issue with this, and it goes back to the communion of saints issue, what others are doing in the name of Christ, is a matter in which we all have vested interest. And perhaps it is better that he use his capital, so to speak, to effect the change, and leave so someone with less baggage surrounding him because of that controversy can help sweep up the mess left in the wake, heal the wounds so to speak. He would be in a wolefully bad position to do that himself.


  6. Re, The Book of Eli: I’m strongly betting that the movie is struggle over who gets the Book and at the end of the movie, the book falls open and it’s blank.


  7. Matthew, I’m not sure what is confusing. I am merely restating the point of the post.

    The Bible is powerful. When taught and applied in wisdom and love, it brings untold blessings. When used carelessly and incorrectly, for improper agendas, it can be destructive.


  8. In light of Chaplain Mike’s comment below, I just wanted to clarify that my personal story was not intended to make any statement about the rightness or wrongness of different views on this issue, but rather to illustrate what I thought was an experience close to home that was similar to the sorts of divisive issues faced on institutional levels. When I referred to “sin”, I only meant in my own mind.

    I could have used exacting Biblical correctness (in my view) to destroy a great relationship (to wound rather than heal as the original essay says). But I received counsel from others (like a young non-denom pastor likely should) who said be careful not to ruin your relationship and do things that will cause great regret in later years…I may not agree with their Biblical views fully but I thought it was still wise counsel. And like the pastor in this essay, suppose I said to my wife that she had to change her mind or I’d leave her…and then turned around and left anyway! To me, that would be unconscionable.


  9. the fact that the congregation voted a certain way is not in itself a validation that this pastor was working in concert with the mind and will of GOD, as I see it (and I realize that I’m an outsider looking in, so my view is less than 100%); this looks to me like a powerful and pursuasive personality taking the group to his own agenda, and letting them clean up the fallout as he exits to his new job. I’d have an easier time beginning to believe that GOD was a part of this if he’d settled in for the really hard work of implementing these changes. Looks like he’d have none of that. hmmm


  10. Maybe that’s the problem right there–religious authoritarianism, whether of book, priest, or tradition. This could never happen among Quakers or Unitarians.


  11. Eaton and others: you are missing a huge point here. I am NOT assuming that this is an unimportant issue, but I did try to place the issue in its context in the life of this particular church.

    The church in question had functioned like this for generations, and whether one agrees with their way or not, they had not to my knowledge had any Biblical qualms about their polity.

    Then, along comes a young pastor who gets all fired up about what he interprets the Bible to teach, dogmatically asserting that the way the church has been acting for decades in their decision-making processes is against Scripture. For some reason, this issue became his focus and a matter of urgent concern.

    Furthermore, though he spouts off his convictions with great fervor, behind the scenes he really has no vested interest in the outcome. All the while he is trying to get the church to change, he himself is trying to change churches!

    The assumption is not necessarily that his INTERPRETATION of Scripture was wrong. For all I know he may have been precisely right. But so what? Is pushing through a change on this issue at this time in this congregation the most important priority for this pastor? Especially when he wasn’t planning on being there for the long haul?

    Oversight from a wiser pastoral mentor, a bishop, or church body might actually have affirmed his interpretation, but also might have prevented a church split because of pastoral immaturity, lack of patience or perspective.

    This post is about PASTORAL WISDOM, or lack thereof.


  12. I agree that this issue goes far beyond the kind of church represented in the post. However, this is the story and setting that I was told about.

    I do also think that the danger of using the Bible as a weapon, the Bible interpreted as a “Word from God” to a particular pastor, is an inherent danger in these kinds of churches.


  13. That’s a good point JeffB. Neither word may be clear enough — and I may not even understand the Chicago Statement accurately.

    My position (and what I thought my church believes) is that the Bible is trustworthy (the word they actually use is infallible) for leading to correct belief in regards to Christ’s gospel and for relationship with God. But for things like history (and to lesser degree science) we may learn something along these lines but that is not the core mission of the Bible. So unless my belief is at odds with my congregation it seems that there is much more rigidity in practice than in official belief statement because most of my pastors and fellow believers are quite broad and literal in their interpretive position toward the Bible. (A position that seems more like inerrancy as I understand the word.)


  14. Well Paul does say that If they will let you remain you can stay with the unbeliever, or let the unbeliever go. But I don’t know how one could manage having his wife for a pastor, I think it is hard enough having a husband for a pastor. I don’t know that those were your only two options is what I am saying, though in all practicality they may have been. Puts one in between a rock and a hard place.


  15. My wife is an ordained minister and pastored a small Baptist church for a few years. She’s not actively in parish work right now. The interesting thing relevant I think to this topic is that I personally oppose the ordination of women on Biblical grounds. My quandary when the issue first came to the surface in our marriage was which would be worse: 1) accepting her ordination, 2) divorcing her. I think this is similar to the issue of whether churches should separate because of theological differences. I found that my love for my wife trumped the theology and that divorce would have been a greater sin.


  16. This is probably getting too far off topic, but you contrast the “Chicago position” on infallibility with some other implied definition of inerrancy. But isn’t the Chicago position on inerrancy?

    Questions on inerrancy have come up many times before in these discussions (some accept it, some don’t, some accept a certain flavor, etc), and from your statement, I just think it becomes very clear that one has to very carefully define terms. I think a lot of disagreements vanish when both sides realize they’re saying the same thing, but that they were using different definitions for the same words.

    Just an observation.


  17. Black Angus,
    I have noted myself in the episcopalian tradition that the pastor’s and bishops tend to do what they want in the face of the congregations. I think the difference here, is when they do it they normally aren’t looking for scriptural justification. In fact they are more inclined it seems to do something if scripture forbids it.


  18. Eaton,
    I share your misgivings here. I think it is a much larger issue than most are willing to admit. It also goes straight back to the authority of scripture! Sorry folks either you ignore scripture all together, or you listen to it on this point to. And it is fairly explicit, women are not to teach etc.
    Yet, I think wise churchmanship will bring the congregation around slowly, as Luther did with the Lord’s supper continuing to celebrate in 1 kind for almost 2 years after he was convicted that is should be offered in both kinds. Similarly is the example of Bishop Vanags in Latvia, who upon receiving that historic Episcopal See within the Lutheran Church, and finding women “pastors” has decided to let them remain in the employ of the church, while banning any further ordinations of the female sex. It may be problematic, but it is fair, and is I think the best way to handle that problem.


  19. I don’t think it’s helpful to portray this as an ‘independent church’ issue. I pastor a Congregational church in Australia and we are very aware of the larger community of faith – it’s a matter of survival. We know we can’t do it on our own and have strong connections with other evangelical denominations and churches.

    And I see far more ‘gunslinger’ pastors in the Anglican churches in my city, who do as they please without regard to the church they serve.

    You ask how the larger community of faith can counsel or help independent churches. In fact I see can be reversed. Again, to use the Anglican churches as an example, they are struggling with lay presidency of the Lord’s Supper and other issuesd with ‘the laity.’ Well, Congregational churches worked through those issues centuries ago but the Anglicans are behaving as though no-one else has ever had to deal with them.
    Learning from the larger faith community is a two-way street.


  20. @Bror Erickson: Thank you for your post! It has given me another perspective on Biblical canon about which I want to study more.

    I did like this post on the Lutheran perspective a lot which I found in the iMonk archive:
    (I post for the benefit of others who may read.)

    Within that discussion I found the comment by Tim H wise: “For those who say that without believing in a divine guarantee of perfect knowledge of the canon, that we can’t know anything in religion: we operate in physics without “perfect” knowledge of physical laws, but we are able, by our imperfect efforts in experimentation and observation, to establish the laws to greater and greater accuracy. We keep pushing the error bars smaller and smaller.”

    Even while my non-d church affirms the “Chicago position” of infallibility in original source languages (a more sensible perspective, IMO, than inerrancy) it still upholds canonicity in the usual Protestant way. I find among our preaching pastors, that they, in practice, preach the Bible in a way more rigid than our profession of faith requires. Perhaps in their good intentions to get believers to put their trust in the Bible they don’t want to preach more nuanced sermons than they do. Maybe they’re afraid of letting the sheep out of the barn, so to speak, given the Mormon climate of Utah, i.e., one day we’re questioning Revelation, the next day we’ll be preaching from the Book of Mormon. Maybe they haven’t considered the difference between inerrancy and infallibility. I’m not certain. Even though textual criticism doesn’t happen much in classes or small groups meetings, either, I’m not really opposed to my church climate so much as sometimes I just feel completely alien.


  21. Following up — depending on the denomination or oversight the pastor would hypothetically be involved with, it’s quite possible they would have brought this issue to the forefront faster than the pastor did. The effect might have been the opposite of what the post is expecting, that oversight would have told the pastor to shelve the issue.


  22. What I question about this story is the assumption that the leadership of women in the church is a low-level issue, that a wise pastor wouldn’t raise to a high profile. And the assumption that with more oversight from a larger body, the pastor’s lack of perspective would have been pointed out and corrected.

    It seems that the role of women in church leadership is a *huge* issue, and has been across many denominations for a number of years.


  23. The change in policy came through a congregational vote in the story, not a unilateral decision by the pastor.


  24. Bror, you’re right. I think what folks misunderstand is that in practice, sola Scriptura means Scripture as the FINAL authority, not the only authority – ie it is the only infallible authority, and it is being maintained (and was defined at Nicea and later) by a fallible authority. Reject Ecclesiastical authority (and tradition) as per say fundamentalist Baptist churches, and you don’t have a fellow with a Holy Book – you have a fellow with only his personal opinion. Without the Church, their is no Scripture, but Scripture holds the final and only infallible authority over the Church. Would that be right?


  25. If his congregants don’t call him on it, it is because for all the talk about the authority of the Bible, the authority is effectively practiced as placed with those in power to interpret it,

    this is the problem behind the problem, IMO; where I’ve seen the gun go off, it’s been because Mr BIGSHOT believed he had that authority given to him to rightly interpret the WORD, no matter what his faith community said about it (and the “board”, such as it was, was cowed into compliance, and too inexperienced to push back). How authority is packaged and played out will make a big difference in how “gun control” plays out here. Again, the need seems to be for REAL accountability, wheither that’s at the local level (elders) or from a level higher (regional directors ??) or both.

    The revelation/wisdom given to ONE individual is a mighty fine hollow-tipped bullet in the havnd gun of choice.


  26. I don’t think that you could maintain Sola Scriptura was ever meant, at least not with Luther and Lutherans, to exclude reason, tradition and experience. The point is it has the final say, scripture is authoritative even over the church. You can’t put all these things on the same level without turning scripture into a wax nose. This is also why Lutherans famously have never closed the canon following the example of trent and proclaimed unilateraly that books like Hebrews, James, 2 peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation are in fact binding on Christians. We let the controversy surrounding these books stand. To “vote” them into canon without the full weight of apostolic authority behind them would ultimately give the church higher ranking over scripture, because it gives the church the right to decide what is scripture. After that we are a liver shiver away from the Book of Mormon. We get hell for ignoring James, but then it wouldn’t be any fun being Lutheran if we didn’t have that.


  27. There is rarely a communion per se among independent churches unless they’re part of a quasi-denominational organization.

    Doesn’t this smell like trouble. This seems to reflect an attitude of “we can figure this out by ourselves, thank you, and if we need help (if ever) we’ll call”. I’m part of a quasi-non denom myself (Vineyard), and the lack of these kind of relationships, or at least the relative infrequent use of them, makes me troubled. We are back to being at the mercy of God’s word/leading to the pastor, primarily , with the help of the elders. I think we need more.


  28. My experience with liberal Methodists is that they are very fond of the quadrilateral concept, largely because it allows them to back away from the Bible as being really authoritative, which makes them very uncomfortable. My own understanding of Wesley is that he did not present or intend the quadrilateral concept to place all four items on the same footing—the Bible had the ultimate preeminence and the other pieces were simply there as a guide to help us understand the Bible better. In other words, it’s an extremely lopsided quadrilateral! That being said, it seems very sensible that we make use of all the gifts God has given us (reason, experience, etc) to better understand Him and His one permanent, authoritative message (in my opinion) in the Bible.


  29. I also find the Quadrilateral very helpful. It’s no magic formula, but it is an example of my dear, practical Mr. Wesley being very sensible.


  30. @Quixotequest: Well said. I had a similar reaction to the article. It sounds to me like the “loaded gun” was the authority given to the young pastor by the congregation. The impact of his actions really had nothing to do with the Bible, except possibly that his congregation ascribed additional authority to his arguments because they used scripture. I think a better use of the analogy is to say every human being is a gun and power is the bullet. Give anyone enough power, the gun will go off and hurt someone. Church congregations give power carelessly and with few checks and balances. Scripture is powerful, but not inherently dangerous as the author implies. The inherent danger is in a church structure than centralizes power in human hands.


  31. Great article, Pastor Mike. And good question — that is why I’m a denominationalist — the denomination provides a check and balance to any cult like tendencies arising in the congregation — personality of the pastor being the most obvious. If your own pastor seems off base, you can check in with others, and with writings, to enlighten and balance your own observations. We recently encountered a pastor who was veering away from what we thought were reasonable/holy expectations in appointing leadership in our congregation. I was able to check in with others, and found illuminating and helpful guidance — which was scriptural. I did not have to reinvent the wheel — and it became clear that my misgivings did not arise out of a “personality” conflict — but out of a respect for scripture and our denomination’s traditions — based on scripture. I am grateful for the help I sought and received — and the new congregation in my denomination I found which is more open to the entire Gospel message — even the messy love part.


  32. Funny thing is more mainline traditional denominations have ministers who hold to aberrant theologies. Just look at the ECUSA, ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, and others of similar ilk. Many of them (not all) shamelessly promote garbage views like the acceptability of homosexual practice, the non-sinfulness of abortion on demand, viewing other religious traditions as valid salvific paths, looking at Scripture as some outdated historic document, etc. The only dangers that independent congregations have is that the pastor becomes this cult-like figure that leads the masses away from historic orthodox Christianity OR builds a mega-church prosperity center (like Joel Osteen).


  33. I don’t know if this makes me not a true Protestant, but I have a real hard time with sola scriptura. It just doesn’t seem Biblical to me 😛 Seriously, though, I am a huge believer in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience), if for no other reason, than because everybody whether they admit it or not practices it. Scripture without reason? Scripture without tradition? Tradition without experience? None of that seems reasonable or scriptural.

    In my tradition (SBC) the pastors have what is known as a Director of Missions, who is like a consultant/overseer for a local association of churches, similar in size to a diocese. Pastors and churches can turn to them for guidance, consultation, arbitration, wisdom, and resources at any time. But as the churches are all autonomous, the DOM has no authority whatsoever. I’d hate to have his job. Sometimes I just wish we did have a bishop so he could step in and clean up some of these messes that pastors/parishioners create, but I’m sure that system has it’s drawbacks too.


  34. When “sola scriptura” isn’t firmly rooted in “sola Christus” then the (spoken) Word from God is treated as the God of Gods. And the laity willingly gives up their right to thoughtfulness, to liberty, to sacred skepticism, to grappling, to charity and hope, because — after all — they’re just not as educated as some clergyman who might use his education, position and calling to bludgeon others into conformity.

    I think the better parallel is that the clergyman, in this case, is the perp, the gun, and the explosive ammo. He just misuses the Bible as his means and license for spiritual violence. If his congregants don’t call him on it, it is because for all the talk about the authority of the Bible, the authority is effectively practiced as placed with those in power to interpret it, not with Him who mysteriously worked with limited and fault-ridden humans to speak it.

    This situation seems to be (based on my experience) a destructive side effect of treating the Bible as inerrant text that must be taught to Believers by those _in authority_ rather than a trustworthy source that must be humbly and submissively wrestled with by the Believer together with _The Authority_ who uses it, limitations and all, to speak into and mold the hearts of His own.


  35. Yes, we have churches where the minister is like a child who has a pistol in his hand. You can find these people in traditional Protestant denominations, independent fundy churches, and other churches inbetween. On the right, the churches that have pastors who are like little boys with loaded pistols are the health-wealth prosperity churches (think Joel Osteen or Kenneth Copeland) or the seeker sensitive churches (think Bill Hybels). On the left, the churches that are in this same precarious position but from a different angle are the pro-homosexual practicing/non-inspired bible perspective/universalist advocating churches (think many of the mainline churches in the USA or the United Church in Canada).

    Here are the signs that show that a pastor has a loaded pistol from the right:

    Is heavily into dispensational theology and only preaches from Revelation
    Advocates health-wealth materialism
    Changes the gospel message to make it seeker-friendly
    Does not talk about the problem of sin and the demands of the law
    Does not talk about the grace of God and how we are justified by faith in Christ alone
    Does not do expository preaching but picks a theme and cherry picks from various bible verses
    Preaching is primarily about the felt-needs of the congregation

    Here are the signs that show that the pastor has a loaded pistol from the left:

    Does not condemn homosexual practice as an abominable sin
    Does not view Scripture as a divinely inspired Word of God
    Preaching is primarily about advocating social justice rather than about the gospel and its demands
    Talks about sin as if it were primarily a social problem or a manifestation of a social problem
    Jesus Christ is someone who is to be followed as a socialist example
    Preaching is about attempting to make people feel included no matter what they believe or how they live

    These are the evidences that a pastor is using the bible as a machine gun to his congregation. If a pastor commits anyone of the homiletical crimes above they are desecrating the Bible and should be sanctioned against by the true followers of Christ.


  36. Yes, the Bible is explosive. I typically only see examples where that power could have been used to blow doors off prison doors and set captives free, but instead it is put under lock and key for being too dangerous. Using it to shoot our enemies seems far more acceptable.


  37. I always get wary when “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” somehow turns into “my way or the highway.” As for the various weapon metaphors, I like the loaded gun one, but sometimes it feels more like scripture is being used as a bludgeon. Mercifully, I’ve been spared this in most churches I’ve been in, but I’ve seen it happen within my own family. Not sure which is worse.


  38. Speaking as a total outsider, it seems to me that differences of opinion or theology or discipline are handled by fission; the troublemakers are either booted out to sink or swim on their own, or the dissatisfied take their Bibles and set up their own congregation, or there’s an ‘agreeing to disagree’ arrangement whereby everyone who agrees with Pastor Joe stays here and everyone who agrees with Elder Bob sets up over there.

    I take it that the pastor in your story did not see the irony in him saying “I am telling you that you are the ones who should rule – just as soon as you boot out the deacons and the women”?


  39. What might be ideal is a collegial sharing of leadership by a team or group. The gifts given to each member (as defined in scripture) of that team would contribute to the mission, goals, and governance of that church. The pastor would be one member of that group and could contribute according to his or her gifts. Now I know this sounds very vague, but so be it. The exalting of pastoral leadership has led to the downfall of many pastors. This group could also function as a place of prayer, sharing personal concerns, and confessing sins.

    We shouldn’t be locked into copying the systems of our culture.

    I have no idea how of if this could work out in the church structures we have in place today. But in new church starts and maybe even in smaller churches it could be tried.


  40. Good point. Perhaps a warning sign should be a pastor who fails to provide his board and congregation with adequate theological training (i.e. “equipping the saints for works of service”).


  41. I’m sorry; I didn’t make myself clear: I’m looking for a historical example, not a fictional illustration.

    I tend to look at any claim of a “Word from God” the way the author of Acts portrays the Bereans: if it’s a Word from God it needs to be consistent with Scripture.


  42. I don’t have much to add here.

    The independent churches I was involved with back in the Seventies formed for a number of reasons: doctrinal drift and compromise in practice was always the stated reason if not always the actual reason.

    I think what we were doing was attempting to distinguish between the organization and the body, for lack of better terms. We didn’t break communion so much as break fellowship, since for us communion was/is a symbol. I understand this is handled differently in Protestant groups for which Communion itself is something more or something else.

    Anyway, we tended to say that we believed in the Church Universal, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, or as you say, the Communion of Saints, but in practice we behaved as if there was only the “local church.” Independent churches tend to parse Scriptural references to the Church along these lines. You will occasionally find preachers who make a big deal of this distinction, typically by counting and weighing the references to one or the other.


  43. Actually, justification by faith (at least as set forth by Luther) wouldn’t have fallen into that category.

    When Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door, he was calling publicly for a theological debate within the church on correct doctrine and practice. He respected the process of calling church councils to establish the proper interpretation of Scripture and believed in the church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1Tim 3.15).


  44. MDSF,
    The wheat and tares comes into it from our perspective also. We know for instance that Christians are found in all denominations that confess the Trinity, and that likewise so are tares even in our own.
    Yet We seek to establish an outward unity atleast with those we agree with in doctrine and practice. And within this outward unity we like to have some sort of polity, Lutherans don’t care what that is, (funny it is feasible to have a Lutheran church with a Presbyterian polity, but probably not in Scotland). One purpose of this polity would be to preserve the doctrine, and to help keep peace among congregations, pastors, and between them all.
    Some of that function is to train young pastors, to help them avoid pitfalls etc. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work out so well, and sometimes you are just left staring at an accident happening. But perhaps it does cut down on some of it.


  45. If you can give me an example here I might be able to comment; I suppose at some point a particular interpretation of “the just shall live by faith” would have fallen into this category.


  46. I guess it depends on what the tradition entails.

    And frankly, I think this was more literally true when the actual Scriptures were in the hands of specialists, and is less literally true now that Bibles are essentially free.


  47. As far as pastors being part of a tradition, does not the Bible itself say that we are “entrusted” with the Gospel and God’s Word? This seems to indicate that it has been passed down to us and that we are responsible for using it well.


  48. Bror,

    When I was a Baptist, I saw very little about the communion of saints. The most cooperation was between other Southern Baptist Churches, with limitations depending upon how they believed on various issues. Some didn’t even join in Thanksgiving Day services with the rest of us.

    There was little to no idea about learning from the history of Christianity. It was only the fact that no one in power knew (or cared) that I didn’t get into trouble spending a month teaching children about certain saints. Patrick and Francis of Assisi are ones that even the strictest Baptist can appreciate.


  49. Just trying to stick with the firearms analogy there. The gunslinger is the guy who gets a bright idea from Scripture and fires it indiscriminately into the crowd, claiming a “Word from God.”


  50. I’m not sure what you mean here; as a non-denominational evangelical I see the Body and Bride of Christ as being something that will be ultimately known, but isn’t apparent until then (e.g. like wheat and tares).

    There is rarely a communion per se among independent churches unless they’re part of a quasi-denominational organization. There’s no church discipline between one church and another, etc. and the constitution of a pastor can be a bit entrepreneurial.


  51. Yes; while non-denominational churches are often revivalist, not everyone in one is a first-generation believer. Some of them are refugees from denominational churches, and with good, and maybe even adequate, reasons.


  52. Thanks for clearing that up.

    But short of that, how can the leaders of these churches take steps to handle the Word of God more carefully?

    This is a tough one; I believe many people leave denominational churches for conservative independent churches because they want to hear something authoritative and certain, and will cling to that rather than asking whether what they’re hearing is true. Or mistake a high regard for Scripture for accuracy. Or some such.

    I wonder how many people who interpret the Bible understand that they are making interpretive judgments. Or are even part of a tradition. I have rarely heard a preacher admit to taking the historical-grammatical approach to interpreting Scripture, much less admitting that there are choices of interpretation within that tradition.

    And how can those of us who are in these kinds of churches find protection from the “gunslingers” out there?

    I have a foggy notion what you mean here, but I’m not sure. Can you identify a gunslinger?

    I tend to balk any time a preacher takes a quote from the Psalms and interprets it as a statement of fact rather than a line of poetry, but I’m not sure that practice, being as widespread as it is, qualifies as gun-slinging.


  53. A little personal background before answering some of the questions:
    I was raised 50/50 Catholic and Episcopalian until my early teens. From there my family became part of the Messianic Jewish scene, specifically in the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations branch of MJ. Congregations in the UMJC are run by a plurality of elders (one of which is the congregational leader/pastor/whatever), and the national Union government itself has influence but little actual authority over individual congregations. I’ve been working on my Master of Christian Ministry at a Baptist university. I’m currently part of a small independent fellowship, but look very fondly toward ACNA Anglicanism.

    So, now to the answers: I personally think it’s very hard for independent congregations to not get into the trap of always reinventing the wheel. The biggest safeguard is for them to have a well-educated and wise leadership. When this is the case, they can look to church history, ecclesiology, and use it as a means for providing “perspective, structure, and guidance.” This doesn’t necessarily mean traditionalism, but it does require an understanding of various traditions. In my experience, with congregations that eschew tradition, the understanding, education, and wisdom regarding church history and ecclesiology is typically lacking. If it weren’t lacking, the leaders would likely see that their level of independence may be more trouble than it’s worth. Or so my expectation is.
    In today’s information age, the small town bit shouldn’t be as much of a problem. Having some sort of mentor or advisor or something with other pastors is absolutely necessary. You can’t be a lone ranger and expcet to not get burned out or make some real boneheaded mistakes. There’s no room in this kinda gig for hubris. As to how to do it, there’s stuff like to help. Also, I don’t know a single pastor that doesn’t know other pastors. They can network with each other and help each other out. But, like I said, it takes some humility to remember that you’re not The Man.
    Again, I think this is an area where you need to have networks of pastors. And that includes pastors from denominational churches. Pastors can help each other.

    Honestly, I did the theory behind the priesthood of all believers and congregationalism. But I have troubles seeing it work well in real life. The danger of cults of personality seems to be too great for my taste. On the other hand, I have a bit of an authority problem myself and thus really am squeamish at the idea of submitting to a bishop or whatever. As with most things, I guess there’s somewhat of a balancing act that has to be done.


  54. Ps. The Scriptural metaphor you are looking for is not a pistol but a sword, God’s word is a double edged sword, the modern equivelant being my side by side shotgun 🙂


  55. boggls my mind on so many levels. To what extent is the communion of saints taught in the evangelical/nondenominational world? I’m beginning to understand I think why there is this post evangelical wilderness.
    We Lutherans like having a church structure, if for nothing else so we have something to rebel against. Though sadly we are not without many of the same problems, polity is polity, and the church is made up of sinners. I think half the doctrine of the communion of saints is learning that you have to forgive to be a communion.


  56. And many churches in denominations, not to mention whole denominations, have gone of track as well.

    That may be one (of many) reason why some non-denominational churches get started.


  57. Good question Mike.

    I liken a lot of this to politics. We moan complain and bellyache abour our political leaders yet we do nothing about it. We have the capability by voting to get rid of them, but we are often too lazy and want someone else to deal with it. Same with congregations. Sometimes they get lazy and give power to a man and are willing to do that as long as he is doing what they want, when he goes AWOL or leaves the reservation then he is “power hungry” leader.

    Many times both are at fault.

    As to your questioning of a theologicaly trained man answering to those who are not, that doesn’t bother me. Now, I’m not an anti-intellectual at all, in fact the anti-intellectualism in my own tradition drives me crazy almost to the point of wanting to leave, and I get your point, but I would offer two statements.

    1. the laity need and should be theolgoically formed, i know that is a pipe dream in today’s watered down church, but it didn’t use to be

    2. a man derives his authority as a pastor not from his theological training but first from his calling from God, and second by his confiming of that calling by the church who has either ordained him or recognized his ordination as valid

    it really is authority by the consent of the governed


  58. So, a pastor with theological training will be held to account by a board and/or congregation that has little or no theological training? What safeguards are there in a congregational system against the “personality-driven” pastor who is charismatic and persuasive?


  59. Another probable factor in this kind of division is what they believed was the will of the Holy Spirit in this discernment process. I am sure that they prayed deeply over these issues and listened, as carefully as they could at the time, for what biblical interpretation the Spirit was convicting them of. It seems to me that people have more credibility and influence over small groups when they believe they have the conviction of the Spirit in their heart in addition to more biblical knowledge or education than others.

    The help with discernment that small congregations need will need to tackle the cult of personality of pastors and will need to provide buffers to those who so easily speak of what the Lord is telling them to do. What a great service this would be for a council of churches. But is would also be a thankless quagmire.


  60. “If there’s a way back to an actual holy, catholic, apostolic church I’d love to know what it is.”

    Me too.

    No, I am not saying that independent churches should, must, or will become part of an established tradition. But short of that, how can the leaders of these churches take steps to handle the Word of God more carefully? And how can those of us who are in these kinds of churches find protection from the “gunslingers” out there?


  61. “What has happened too often in congreagationalism is that the congregation has surrendeered their responsibility of being the repository of authority and tradition and have given it to a “personality” driven pastor. The main problem with congregationalism is not the system of govt, it is the cult of the personality that too often develops.”

    I think this is a good observation.


  62. A couple of quick points. 1: Phew! I thought this was going to be an anti-gun ownership message with an emphasis on Christian pacifism, for the children of course. 2. The movie The Book of Eli looks like a movie on the power religion can have for good or evil. Looking forward to seeing it.

    It is one thing to say that scripture has authority over the lives of Christians, which I believe it does, but it is far too easy for a Christain to claim that same authority for themselves to justify whatever course of action they want to take. This is what has always bothered me about the more passionate of my brethren.


  63. I never thought of the Bible as a loaded gun, but there is a lot of truth to that. But I think most of us don’t realize how trigger-happy with our with thoughtless, and sometimes even careless actions. The example we set for others matters more than most of us realizes, and especially if others know we’re Christian, than what we do not only affects other, but can often affect their view of Christianity.

    If only our own wills and egos didn’t get in the way of doing His will so often…


  64. This raises several questions: …

    You seem to be leading to a conclusion that because independent churches have problems, occasionally become cults, don’t hold their leaders to account, sometimes have aberrant theology, etc. that they should be join some established tradition and come under its guidance and discipline.

    I would respectfully submit that this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

    If any of the available traditions is the correct one please let me know what it is.

    I’m not saying this flippantly. If there’s a way back to an actual holy, catholic, apostolic church I’d love to know what it is.


  65. Just a few thoughts. I’m of the opinion that no exact system of church govt. should be forced on anyone as the “only” biblical way to do things. I certainly think that each system be it congregationalism, episcopal, or presybeterian has both it’s positives and negatives. I tend, due to upbringing, to be more of a congregationalist so that is the one I will address.

    Congregationalism often is criticized as being totally devoid of tradition and accountablility. And I would agree that a lot of churches that claim to be congregational would fit that description, but I do not beleive that those charges and problems have to go hand in hand with congregationalism.

    What has happened too often in congreagationalism is that the congregation has surrendeered their responsibility of being the repository of authority and tradition and have given it to a “personality” driven pastor. The main problem with congregationalism is not the system of govt, it is the cult of the personality that too often develops.

    Congregationalism needs two things to work well. An involved active congregation, and some sort of standard of church discipline.


  66. To me, the autonomous or non-denominational congregation is unlikely to respond to “historically proven practices” or “counsel from the larger community” in the first place, so I’m not sure that even asking the question makes sense. I’m not saying these aren’t genuinely good questions, just that the thinking processes which led to the creation of such autonomous entities in the first place don’t seem likely to respond to any sort of “constructive criticism” from the larger community, particularly if that outside assistance is making an appeal to history or experience.


  67. “In a nondenominational congregation, what experience or counsel from the larger community of faith is available to help them work through an issue that other churches have dealt with already”

    I propose here that the multi-site church blurs the distinction between a nondenominational congregation and a denomination. If we’re talking about five to seven sites in more than one city that are considered nondenominational congregations perhaps we’re really talking about microdenominations, too big to properly classify as individual churches because of the multiple campuses and all, but too small to classify as a denomination proper.

    Some churches grow faster than their infrastructure is competently able to deal with. When this happens significant battles over polity occur that often inspire leaders to talk about what the “biblical” precedent is. Beyond simply hurting lots of people this tends to have a weakness for reinventing the wheel where, frankly, denominational polity would be wisely considered. No one wants to curb growth so that polity can be dealt with in more responsible and considered ways. I have seen a lot of what I would have to call intramural syncretism in some larger “non-denominational” churches. They may affirm the priesthood of all believers but have a functionally episcopate church polity despite the ostensibly presbyterian structure. After seeing a nondenom church go through so many growing pains and fights about things that seem to me reinventing the wheel I decided that landing in a denominational church made more sense. Today’s nondenominational megachurch might as well be tomorrow’s Reformed Baptist or Methodist church or whatever is closest to what the new church is doing.


  68. “Scripture Alone” does not mean “My Bible and Me Alone.”

    In my experience, “SCRIPTURE (TM)” all too often becomes “EES PARTY LINE, COMRADE!”

    With Thought Police ready to SCRIPTURALLY jump on any hint of Thoughtcrime.

    To this day, I cannot even speak the word. You don’t know how hard it is for me to even key it in.


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