The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.
We attended a mega-church for a number of years. At first it was wonderful. We had, and still have many friends there. It was a place where both my wife and I grew and healed and found peace with God through genuine followers of Christ that came alongside us in our own faith journey.
Things began to change over time. As a worldwide church renewal ministry grew out of this congregation, with a 2000 seat sanctuary and weekly attendance of 3600 or so followers, so did the pressure to protect the ministry. Prayer summits turned at least partly into propaganda meetings, bible study groups began to align with carefully scripted study lessons to ensure the people who attended these community groups were consistent and unified.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable, though I did not know why in both leading and then being led by group leaders following the guided lesson plans. Leaders would ask each person how much time they spent in devotions that week, or how many verses they memorized. When I was struggling with depression I had no energy for such things, and when I was spending daily time I hated sharing this information with the group because it added to the weight of others who might have struggled at the time. The lessons we went through were directly connected to the Sunday sermon and carefully curated to ensure that everyone was connecting to God in the same way.
If this all sounds a bit cultish… well… it was. I would never have admitted it at the time.
When the Church finally split as the suppressed divisions flared up, we left and have never fully committed to either side. There appeared to be a significant undercurrent that left us uneasy with both sides of the split.
Having said all this, we know many wonderful people on both sides of that split including many well meaning Pastors and leaders.
I don’t fault the leaders of the Church for the mistakes that were made, they certainly are not the first ones to make the reputation of the ministry and the effectiveness of the organization more important than the individual souls it seeks to lead into relationship with Christ. They, like many others began to see uniformity and unity in Christ as the same thing.
This has been the challenge of the Church since the Apostles. I have shared this thought provoking quote by Henri Nouwen in another post:
“The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led”
My point here isn’t to dredge this church split up… rather I wish to draw us into discussion about what unity looks like when we follow Christ as opposed to an organization or institution. I want to look at a biblical perspective of unity… not merely an organizational one.
I’ve been in management for most of my life now. Many employees will request better “training” in terms of their jobs.
The response of leaders is often to create programs and courses designed to bring along the person who knows nothing and take the whole group through that course. Inevitably… we lose the interest and the involvement of the experienced employee through these aligned courses curated to produce sameness but not productivity. There is no better way to disengage experienced and knowledgeable people than to treat them like they know nothing.
I was an oldest child… as an oldest child I always tried to insert myself into adult conversations. It was where I wanted to be. These adults seemed so smart and I felt i wanted to be with the grown ups. The problem was they would never take me seriously… and of course I would insert my naïveté into conversations showing how little I knew. One aunt once said to me in German I was “ault-naisicht” which means “old nosed”. I didn’t think it was funny at the time but now I do. I look back with fondness when there were adults who humored me and answered my questions with patience and kindness.
I’ve seen it time and again where a Pastor or for that matter a business leader wants to avoid heresy or wrong thinking in their group and they launch uniform teaching resources. In the Church these resources always have to revert back to basic principles of the faith… and they are meant to align the faithful to unity of message around the central church doctrines. Often they are connected to Sunday sermons… which do not always hit with the small group needs. As an example a mom who’s survived on three hours sleep doesn’t need to be reminded she didn’t evangelize in alignment with the sermon notes… She needs empathy, perhaps an offer to clean her house or just some encouragement.
I can certainly understand why a Pastor would want uniformity... however, these outlines never accomplish what they are meant to. Instead they quench the work the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish and open the leaders to the temptation of using gaslighting and manipulation to create a false unity. This type of top down guidance will produce uniformity... not unity!
Instead of creating a group of individuals that follow Christ wholeheartedly this alignment produces people that follow the institution… placing Christ in second place. The dogma has overcome the purpose of evangelism, which is to reproduce WHOLLY DEVOTED FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST! Instead this produces weak, immature and easily manipulated Christian's.
Paul, the writer of many of the epistles in the New Testament says this in Hebrews:
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
One can sense Paul's frustration here. It was clear he was not into spoon feeding believers a steady diet of pablum. He wanted to see the Church grow into maturity and strength through being salt and light together. As a matter of fact... in Hebrews 10 verse 24 he speaks of how Christian's should be with each other. This verse will challenge the religious mind:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The words translated "stir-up" in the ESV Bible quoted here are the single Greek word "paroxusmos", which means "stimulation, provocation, irritation," This is "a provocation which literally jabs (cuts) someone so they "must" respond." In other words we are called to "goad" each other on.
What Paul is saying here is that a group of believers who are meeting together for encouragement should also be able to engage in healthy debate. They should be able to ask hard and spontaneous questions without fear of stepping over a line in a Bible study group.
Paul was an overseer of vastly different Churches in the first century. The Galatian’s, with their rampant legalism… and the Corinthians with their infatuation with spiritual gifts while ignoring the impact of sin in their lives. Imagine if the apostolic leadership had created a program where the Bible study leaders in individual homes in both Churchs had to follow a guided lesson plan that didn’t take their distinct cultural struggles into consideration? This would have never worked! Why? Because people are vastly different, they have different cultures, different backgrounds, different struggles. Paul didn’t send the Galatians the letter meant for the Corinthians nor did he send the Corinthians the Galatian letter. Just because we have the benefit to having both at our fingertips doesn’t say we should force the same message into every group… instead it should be localized even into individual homes... a literal study group!
Martin Luther King Jr said of uniformity:
“Unity has never meant uniformity.”
We are trying to create full theological and religious unity instead of the much simpler task: to "create fully devoted followers of Christ" who follow Jesus in Spirit and in Truth. The latter will create genuine unity as mature believers debate and search for truth together. The former will create a faux unity that is a mile wide and an inch deep, a unity much like a house built on sand.
Every pastor or leader wants unity. Jesus' own desire for those who follow him was unity. What is this unity and how do we achieve it?
It is not unreasonable for a Church to have core tenants - a mission statement or basic elemental teachings that are not “up for discussion” without approval from Church leaders… honestly if we don’t agree with a Church’s core tenants why are we there?
As an example, let’s say I managed a McDonald’s restaurant but I had an employee that constantly told customers to go to Burger King… obviously I could not allow that to continue… I’d want to find out from that employee why they feel so passionately about the competition. If it was established that they were not interested in dialogue and only in division… I would be forced to part ways.
We see a perfect picture of unity by looking at the Trinity. God is three in one, vastly different operations but wholly unified in its goals and ambitions and its desires. One God but three “persons” that are vastly different.
Within a Church family there is a vast diversity of people, uniquely gifted to serve each other for the sake of unified maturity in the faith according to Ephesians 4. Even though we are one in Christ, God doesn’t require us to erase our unique gifts, abilities, personal preferences, or other distinctions like gender or age. He also doesn’t erase our ethnic and cultural heritages according to Revelation 7.
Unity is not a celebration of what makes us different! The world is infatuated with that, and we can see it’s effects on an increasingly divided culture. In Christ we celebrate what brings us together. We gather around a Cross and devote ourselves to follow this Risen saviour wherever He leads. We celebrate the same risen Christ who saved us all!
“Unity does not sweep evil under the rug, stiff-arm critique, or dismiss conflict in order to maintain a ‘kumbaya’ circle while the vulnerable suffer in silence.” - Quina Aragon
How do we achieve Biblical unity while creating a culture that draws people to deeper relationship with Christ!
Firstly, as an overseer we must learn to let our group leaders lead… if they are struggling to lead… hand them a book to study together. Encourage discussion of that book. Avoid giving them answers and sermon outlines that are curated. Give them materials to make them question and analyze and think and grow deep roots. I’ve found that those questions will come and bring the most life if they come from the group and not from “upper management”.
If leaders are doing their own book studies and you as a lead pastor are afraid of false teachings… there is nothing wrong with asking leaders to submit requests for books to study to a leadership group for approval. If the group leader is confident in this book they should be able to make a case for it. As an example, if a leader would want to study a book written by Eckhart Tolle that should be summarily rejected because Eckhardt is indeed an apostate, having embraced what is really Buddhism in a veil of Christian language.
Having said that… discussing a book that might be mostly good but has some areas one might have concerns about I would suggest that to allow the small group to study such a book would be okay. Leadership could even say “the Church has this view… but we welcome respectful debate and discussion on this as our desire is for individual and corporate growth in intimacy with Christ first and formost!"
This takes the shackles off and allows the group to dig deep and debate/discuss those things, to own their own beliefs.
The point is to create thinking followers of Christ within small groups. We want to see leaders and community roots grow deep. We want people engaging deep questions… hard questions!
We want to see people become attracted to our authenticity… our lack of fear of being challenged. When new believers come into our groups or bible studies we want to have a culture of mutual respect of beliefs.
There may be some really hard discussions that would happen over coffee with individuals, but in the small group we want to see openness to walk through elementary teachings as well as more complex truths. The young believer in these settings will want to grow into this attractive maturity in the same way I looked to adults as a child.
The unity we seek is not sameness… it is oneness in our worship, our adoration and our devotion to Jesus Christ! We can adhere to core tenants of faith while remaining respectful of where others are in their journey!
My prayer is that the Church would lay aside infatuation with sameness and embrace oneness with Christ instead. Christs unity won't look like ours... it will be messy but united in the same purpose, the same hearts cry, the same passion for the lost. Just a bunch of sold out wholly devoted disciples of Jesus Christ learning to do life together!