Sticking It Out With Fellow Disciples
by Jon Zens
In the Spring, 1983 issue of Searching Together I wrote an article, "The Need of the Hour: Churches Seeking Truth as Communities of Faith." Reflecting on my own experience in churches since 1965, having traveled to some twelve cities in March of this year, and now experiencing the joy of being in a church where Biblical doctrine and love are practiced, I am more convinced than ever that the key concept churches must face is the ability to speak truth to one another in a non-threatening, accepting atmosphere (Rom. 15:7; Eph. 4:15).
Church splits occur hourly. Part of the problem is "the refusal of pastors to make laymen part of the decision-making process" (Wayne Kiser, "Church Splits," Evangelical Newsletter, 1982). Another problem is the failure of churches to face and resolve conflicts: "in about half the cases where the problem went to the extreme, the church boards were not willing to confront the offender and the pastor left the church, which eventually faced the same problem again" (Kiser, "Splits").
Think about it. What are the most important elements of church life? A written constitution? A creed? A pastor? A nice building complex? A solid denominational affiliation? A "separated testimony"? Trained "laymen"? The manifestation of spiritual gifts? You can have everything you've always wanted in a church (and less), but if it is not bonded together in the gospel in an accepting atmosphere where doctrine and practice can be worked out in humility as a body, you won't get anywhere. Correlating Romans 15:7 and 15:14 in our churches is where the focus should be.
As Elliot Johnson put it so well, "in order to reach unity we need some way to talk about our different interpretations and to evaluate these differences." "We need some way..." That is the vital element that is missing in most churches. There is no spiritual mechanism for studying the Scriptures openly together, for handling conflict, and for working through difficulties as a body with a view toward unity (or consensus). This is where the battle is, and the lack of this acceptance/confrontation mechanism is why battles are lost so often. We may be trained in doctrine or prophecy, but our greatest need is to be trained in interpersonal relationships. When our convictions come into conflict with others, we drop out instead of sticking it out with fellow disciples.
Here are some crucial areas I believe hinder the body from coming into unity/consensus.
1. We tend to stick with some "party-line," and will not learn from other traditions/sources. A Calvinist picks up a book by an Arminian, and says "Ugh!" An Arminian sees a book by a Calvinist, and turns his head the other way. A Presbyterian refuses to read a book by a dispensationalist. A dispensationalist won't touch a book written by a charismatic. A Baptist is offended by Anabaptist literature. You get the point. We had better learn to receive light in spite of the source!
A.N. Groves wrote in 1833 concerning his relationship with J.N. Darby:
Mr. Darby urged me years ago, not to preach on baptism, saying, I should thereby become a sectarian; as well might our dear brother H. have been told not to publish his tract against war, lest he should be identified with the Society of Friends. Surely, if we are not free to follow all, where they follow Christ and His will, we have only changed one kind of bondage for another. I do not think we ought to propose to be modeled unlike every sect, but simply to be like Christ; let us neither seek nor fear a name. I wish rather to have from every sect what every sect may have from Christ (Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement, pp. 114-115).
Are you ready to practice that attitude?
2. We tend to view truth as mediated through the pastor, rather than coming into truth as a believing community. Like it or not, the inherited tradition concerning how truth is received by a church assumes that the "experts" (school-trained and "ordained") are the source for truth, and thus the congregation is seen as unqualified to be a part of the truth-discovering process. For example, on the back of one church bulletin we read, "in preaching God speaks to us through his ordained minister."
It was the Anabaptists who saw "the congregation as a hermeneutical community"--the church as the setting for Biblical understanding and application (Millard C. Lind, "Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," Kingdom, Cross and Community, 1976, pp. 92-93). We think of hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) as being done by the "experts," and the "laymen" receive what is given from the top (cf. Calvin Redecop, The Free Church and Seductive Culture, 1970, p. 137). But making hermeneutics a community affair renders the truth powerful, and does justice both to the priesthood of all believers and the discerning anointing all believers have (1 Pet. 2:5,9; 1 John 2:20,27).
"Clergy" and "laity" were very far apart in Catholicism. But Protestantism did not close the gap between pulpit and pew either. It emphasized "that learning, as it was acquired in clerical study and redistributed from the pulpit, was the indispensable cornerstone of Christianity" (Larzer Ziff, Puritanism in America, 1973, p. 136).
3. We tend to polarize and divide from one another without seeking to work through issues with other disciples. Having broken with Catholicism, observe how the Reformers split among themselves--over things like the nature of the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper (the great irony: the meal that unites was the occasion for bitterness and sharp division). Compared to all the time spent defending views, very little time has been devoted to listening and interacting in humble, prayerful dialogue with those who disagree.
Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit will bring us into growth and truth as we submit ourselves to one another and to the Word?
So often our behavior is childish and makes a mockery of the Holy Spirit and the gospel. When we face new issues from the Word, are we willing to work together, study together, pray together, and even fast together to seek the Lord's will and try to come to greater agreement?... It takes a commitment to the truth and to the brothers/sisters to be willing to work matters out... The realization and institution of a process by which churches can face anything in Scripture together in humble dependence on the Holy Spirit is indeed a great need, a crying need, and, unfortunately, a need that most churches are not aware of or interested in (Spring, 1983, Searching Together, p. 2).
- "Coming To Truth in Fellowship with Others."
Searching Together, 12:1, 48pp.
- J. Grant Howard, The Trauma of Transparency,
Multnomah Press, 1979. 229pp.
- Neta Jackson, A New Way to Live: A Bible Study on
Christian Relationships, Herald, 1983, 110pp.
- Franklin Littell, "The Work of the Holy Spirit in
Group Decisions," Mennonite Quarterly Review,
April, 1960, pp. 75-81.
- Dennis D. Martin, "Schools of the Prophets: Shepherds
and Scholars in New England Puritanism," Historical
Reflections, Vol. 5, 1978, pp. 41-79.
- Paul M. Miller, "Coming to Consensus in the Church,"
Searching Together, 11:1, pp. 41-44.
- Calvin Redecop, "Group Discernment," The Free
Church in a Seductive Culture, pp. 102-103, 134-145,
- "Some Consensus Attitudes," Justice and the
Christian Witness, 1982, p.15.
- John Yoder, "Biblicism and the Church,"
Concern #2, pp. 26-63.
- George Yule, "Continental Patterns and the Reformation in England and Scotland," Scottish Journal of Theology, 1969, pp. 305-323.
Note: This article originally appeared in Searching Together, Volume 12:4, pp. 14-16. Used by permission.