Don’t confuse important things for the chief thing and act like it is the only thing

I recently wrote about getting your polity and ecclesiology right before problems arise in your church. In it, I made the claim, ‘the overwhelming majority of issues in our churches stem from a lack of thinking on ecclesiology.’ You can read the whole article here.

Most issues that we face day to day within the church stem from a faulty understanding of who the church is and what it is called to do. When people leave the church – sometimes legitimately, often less so – their issues typically stem from a difference in ecclesiology. The people leaving may not recognise it that way, but it is almost always the case.

Let me share some recent examples of this phenomena. First, let me share some examples of people leaving their church over obvious ecclesiological matters. I have seen people leave because they objected to people becoming members without being baptised and others who didn’t like their church’s position that one should be baptised to join the church. Those are ecclesiological positions. I have seen people leave because they did not like open communion and I’ve similarly seen people leave because they didn’t like closed communion. Those are ecclesiological matters. I’ve seen folks leave because they didn’t like the way church discipline was practised (whether it wasn’t applied at all, it was applied to heavily or they objected to its application in any scenario whatsoever). All these clearly and obvious stem from views on ecclesiology and polity.

But I said the overwhelming majority of issues in the church stem from ecclesiology. So what about the less obvious examples? One minister told me of a couple leaving his church because they disagreed over the his use of contraception. No doubt the couple leaving would insist this is a matter of sin on the part of the minister (NB: he wasn’t advocating abortion or abortifacients.) This emanates from a view that the minister’s role is to determine the choices of the church (or, it is members’ role to determine the choices of the minister) in respect to the minutiae of their lives. I have no intention of going into the rights and wrongs of that position. However, while there may be discussions about such things in the church, to insist that matters of adiaphora ought to be determined and enforced by the minister or the church members is an ecclesiological position. The view essentially insists this is what the church, its leaders and members ought to be doing.

I know of folks who have left churches because of the mode of preaching. Specifically, a minister who typically preached systematic, expository sermons through books of the Bible decided to preach a series that was topical. So, off a couple went because this was (in their view) an entirely inappropriate approach to scripture and the teaching programme of the church. Again, without getting into the rights and wrongs of that, it is an ecclesiological view of what the church ought to be doing; namely, teaching its people in a particular, prescribed manner.

As I mentioned in my previous post:

When members become unhappy that the church isn’t doing enough X or seems to be prioritising Y, that stems from one’s ecclesiology. When they sense the pastor, or elders, or whoever should or shouldn’t be doing things differently, that stems from their view of ecclesiology and polity. When members have concerns with other members – for example, the church isn’t friendly enough, some people aren’t serving as they ought, all the work is falling on me, etc, etc – these are all questions of ecclesiology.

One reason people fall out over such matters is because they end up prioritise one thing – maybe even a good thing – at the expense of all else. It is not uncommon for gospel-centred churches to insist that the gospel is the most important thing. That statement is true enough. The problem is that the statement then gets interpreted in all sorts of problematic ways.

For example, if the gospel is the most important thing, this is heard by some as meaning evangelism is essentially the only thing a church ought to prioritise. Shouldn’t the church exist as a mission post, teaching its people an essentialist gospel message, giving them techniques to take it out and then focusing all its energies exclusively on reaching lost souls? It is this mode of thinking that turns weekly worship into an evangelistic rally each week, finds the preaching is one basic evangelistic message after another and all the activities of the church are geared up toward winning those outside. The entire service and activity of the church then gets changed according to how outsiders may feel coming in. The believers in our midst are simply there to reach the unconverted who we may win.

Other folks want to emphasise their particular version of pastoral care. Loving people is is deemed the right outworking of the gospel and becomes the only filter through which all other activities of the church are judged. Anything that takes us away from loving the members of the church (usually in the way the person advocating the view defines ‘loving’) then we are failing in our core duty as a church. It is this mode of thinking that says we drop preaching if some members of the congregation find it ‘a bit much’. If not dropping it altogether, we make sure we don’t offend anybody by what we preach in case they don’t feel adequately loved. The meetings and activities of the church aren’t set up for the purposes of reaching the lost or building the body, but serving those who deign to serve and gain fulfilment from their service.

Others again may emphasise the importance of Word-centred ministry. But this may be deemed so vital that it is the only thing of any importance at all. The pastor might spend 40-hours a week crafting his sermon(s) but all to the detriment of spending any time with anyone from the church in person. This mode of thinking tends to make the church something closer to the preaching centre than a local body of believers meeting together for mutual encouragement. The Word lived out in practice takes a very definite second place to the Word being rightly expounded in the pulpit. People don’t need to feel you love them because you show them you love them simply by standing in the pulpit and teaching them rightly. The elders never do the work of an evangelist because they’re too busy teaching the converted only. There is no room in this model for the world seeing our love for one another and being drawn to Christ, we expect them to be won by the sheer force of our excellent doctrine alone.

You name it, we can make it the main thing and order everything within the church around it. None of those examples I gave above are bad things of themselves. All good churches do want to reach the lost. All good churches do want to love their members. All good churches do want to rightly handle the Word. These are all good things. The problem comes when we make a priority of the church the only priority of the church and they all stem from out ecclesiology: what is the church and what is the church to do?

The point I am making is this: how we answer the dual question ‘what is the church and its mission?’ will affect just about everything we do as a church thereafter. If we answer that question sloppily, we will find priorities that scripture demands of the church go by the wayside as we overemphasise one over another. If we don’t know what the church is, or who is supposed to belong and how, how the church ought to be structured or what the church ought to be about, we will quickly find ourselves doing all sorts of things scripture doesn’t demand, and ignoring others that it does, because we have insisted on a particular priority at the expense of all others.