How Not To Do Church

CultureWatch  Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…

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:

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

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.

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