The Fork in the Road: Scruples, Part 2

In some settings, the scruples of the weaker brothers effectively prevent doing God’s missions if the brother with stronger faith does not submit to the weaker brother. Hence, Paul had Timothy circumcised to be able to teach unconverted Jews who were too bigoted to listen to a Gentile.

My own experience is that to be a teacher or leader, you often have to yield to the community in which you participate. If the congregation wears suits to church, my conscience would let me be casual, but I’ll wear a suit so I can teach. I submit so I can serve God’s mission.

Over time, after better instruction on grace, perhaps I can break the khakis out. Besides, a church gets to make these kinds of rules. If I don’t agree, well, I’m not the decision maker.

Just so, as an elder, I do not drink at all. Not because the Bible says it’s sin, but because so many consider it sin that my ability to be a shepherd would be compromised by my exercise of freedom. Just so, Paul had his head shaved and participated in Jewish ritual late in his career so the Jews would give him a hearing.

Now, this can be taken too far. In fact, when the time seemed right, I began teaching classes wearing “business casual.” Over time, the church became a business casual without any announcements or preaching.

But had I done that 5 years earlier, I’d only have looked like an idiot. But never did I tempt people to sin against their consciences. If you want to wear a suit to my church, by all means, wear a suit. Those who do so, do so to honor God. The rest of us have to respect that.

Actually, that’s not quite right. There were times I got a little high and mighty about not wearing a suit and criticized those who did so. I was wrong. I wanted to encourage an atmosphere more suitable for the unchurched — but I pushed too fast and too hard at times. Patience is a learned virtue. It comes hard.

But I don’t think this principle applies to inter-congregational relations. I have no reason to yield to the scruples of every church in town, even if they won’t let our preacher participate in their preacher lunches or if they talk bad about us from their pulpits or in their bulletins. If I behaved otherwise, I’d make the eldership of the most conservative church in town effectively the eldership of my church. That would be very wrong.

Our church’s reputation is of great importance — in reaching the lost. Our reputation among other Churches of Christ never outweighs evangelistic effectiveness. I’d not surrender one soul just so a church down the road would speak better of me or my congregation. I will not let my congregation be ruled by other congregations. It would violate congregational autonomy. Moreover, kowtowing to would-be popes only encourages such horrid behavior. It cannot be tolerated.

Churches used to write us letters asking our “position” on various issues. We don’t answer. We don’t let the secretaries show us the letters! There are no popes in the Churches of Christ, and we have no obligation to submit to an Inquisition by other congregations.

When a member of our church asks for an explanation, we take as much time as is needed. We owe our members explanations and instruction. We are accountable to our Maker and our members. We aren’t accountable to preachers in other churches–even those with printing presses.

On the other hand, we used to sponsor a youth rally for teens from several states. We often refused to do things we considered right so that kids could come and be exposed to Christian community and great teaching. Had we pushed too hard, we’d have kept kids from more conservative churches from coming at all — too high a price for freedom.

And we’ve been embarrassed at times by youth ministers who, contrary to our wishes, decided to “push the envelope” and undertake worship styles that were clearly contrary to the scruples of people they’d invited. This behavior plainly violated Romans 14 — especially when it comes to kids, who are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. For this, we’ve apologized — and correctly so. (Do our colleges have youth ministry classes called “Easier to get forgiveness than permission 101”?)

No one should be brought to a worship under false pretenses. No one should be surprised with a new practice that the leadership knows will create sins of conscience. However, if people know the new practice is coming and if they’ve been instructed on why the practice is being initiated, they may choose to participate or not. It’s their choice. They can’t hold the church back. But neither should the church impose it’s desire for change on unsuspecting members.

But, ultimately, change can happen if the leadership so decides and the church is willing to follow. At some point, the leaders have to make the hard call and leave some people unhappy. We’ll never make everyone happy!

Then again, neither is the choice made based on surveys or popularity — it’s all a question of fulfilling the mission of the church. If the change helps us do what we’re called to do, we just have to do it — although it may have to be preceded by years of instruction and prayer. Patience is a learned virtue, and I’m getting there.

And so, the doctrine of grace has some very practical applications. Those with weak and strong faith must extend grace to one another, just as God extends grace to them. Freedom is a God-given blessing, but love trumps freedom — love for the lost, love for the weak, and love for our members.

But nothing requires us to yield to the scruples of everyone or even every member. The principle is that we don’t cause others to sin, which is very different from not causing them to be unhappy! And the last thing we should do is let people run the church based on how easily offended they are! Jesus never promised us that we would always get our way.

Therefore, I can’t use my scruples to pound my brother into submission.

(1 Cor. 9:19, 23) Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. … I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Paul submitted — but he submitted to be effective at winning souls for Jesus, not to avoid criticism or to protect his reputation.


15 Responses

  1. But I don’t think this principle applies to inter-congregational relations.

    I think that’s the key point. It’s hard to imagine how instrumental music at one congregations causes members of another congregation to sin. So the scruples argument wouldn’t apply.

  2. Respect for congregational automony, respect for the authority of the local elders, and a realization that there was a very practical reason that Paul went to the Gentile and Peter and the rest headed to the Jews. Their ministries would have been very different at several levels to be effective in their radically different “target demographics.” Same thing today. Let the elders of the local congregation figure out how best to reach the community around them and if you can’t give them all the help you can at least leave them alone and respect their authority and autonomy in Christ.

  3. ” . . . the last thing we should do is let people run the church based on how easily offended they are! Jesus never promised us that we would always get our way.”

    Right, and a thousand times, RIGHT! We don’t want to deliberately infuriate “weaker” brothers or sisters. Of course not. But sometimes a choice must be made between pleasing some members or pleasing other members, and church leaders need to be willing to make the choice best able to bring growth to the church as a whole.

    But do we always choose wisely? Of course not. But we try to do so. And this is true in relations between groups of churches as well. The Christian Churches/Churches of Christ group seek to be in full fellowship with undenominational Christians wherever found. This displeases some brethren in Churches of Christ sects. We hope it pleases our Lord. And we hope it will bring into “our” fellowship all who share our love for Jesus. Or cause us to join with all others with the same love.

  4. Sometimes elders do need a little help, from their own members. I remember while preaching at a country church, a good congregation of about 120, the members decided to hire a youth minister. I was fine with that, we had a very good youth group who loved activity.
    There was one family that insisted that we try out someone from a preacher school located in a city close by. This family saw themselves as guardians of the faith. Well, the elders in wanting to be fair had someone from the school to come in for a try out. A young man came in to preach one Sunday morning who proceeded to mention how he noticed people in the congregation with modern translations of the bible; he expounded on the evils of such translations. He also made a remark about the hymnal we used. We used the blue one…he liked the red one that had changed the words of most of the songs.
    I wasn’t sure if I should be the one to tell the elders that this was not a wise choice. I wasn’t sure how the elders would take my opinion. I didn’t have to. An elderly gentleman of about 80 years, who was loved and respected by all, yet never pushed his way on to anyone about anything simply walked up to one of the elders and said, with a grin, “We don’t need someone coming in here telling us what song book to use, do we? Nah, I didn’t think you did”. That was the end of that.

  5. Alan,

    i tend to agree. However, i have been part of conservatives churches that were far smaller and less demographically diverse than the progressive church across town. Some members felt disdain for the progressive church. Some members felt like if we would just imitate their progressive practices, we’d grow numerically as well. Some members were tempted to leave and go to the progressive congregation because it looked “hip” and “trendy” and more young people were there. And some members were jealous because of it.

    While i’ve been in towns where the opposite was true (the conservative church was larger and more active), it’s nevertheless the case that some inter-congregational relations can create the kind of peer-pressure-to-violate-conscience that Jay is talking about.


  6. Guy wrote:

    it’s nevertheless the case that some inter-congregational relations can create the kind of peer-pressure-to-violate-conscience that Jay is talking about.

    That’s possible, but it seems so unlikely to me. After all, these conservative churches apparently aren’t tempted to use instruments by the Methodists, nor the Pentecostals, nor the Baptists… nor even the independent Christian churches. They’ve remained staunchly a cappella for the past 150 years while other churches were introducing instruments.

    OTOH they have lost members to those other “brands.” The question is, were those members tempted to do what they believed was sin, or did they believe it to be permissible? I don’t know.

  7. Alan,

    The conservative church is related to the progressive church across town in a way that they are not related to the other groups they mentioned. (Or at the very least, they view themselves as being related to one in a way they do not view themselves being related to the other.) Many in those conservatives churches do not view themselves as a denomination, thus they aren’t concerned with what denominations are doing other than to rant from the pulpit about how they’re justifiably different from denominations. However, the progressive church across town doesn’t fit into the same category. Members may have family and friends that attend the progressive church. Even some of the ultra-conservative members acknowledge that the people across town are, in fact, Christians. Thus, the belief and practice of those people matters in a way that other denominations in town do not. It is easy for people to get jealous of their siblings in a way they won’t ever feel jealousy toward non-family members.

    It may be rather unhealthy to compare ourselves to other congregations (or it may not be..i tend to think it more likely is unhealthy). Nevertheless, people do it, and in some cases it causes some inner turmoil.

    That was especially true in one town i worked in where our congregation used to be the biggest in town some 20 years prior to that point. There was a slightly-less conservative (but still on the whole conservative) church across town that was booming, and there was a decidedly progressive church across town that was almost equally well-off. Our members constantly compared us to those other two churches. Some judged that we were more ‘faithful to the truth’ than those other two. Others judged that we must be failing since we didn’t have the numbers the other two places did. Others wanted to leave our congregation to go to one or the other of the two. Still others thought if we would just imitate one or the other, then we could improve.

    Point being, i’m not sure that strict congregational-autonomy will ever be had no matter how ideal it may seem. People will be curious about other congregations beliefs and practices, and they’ll be tempted to compare themselves to those other places. When the “young people” scurry away to the more “happenin'” congregation, is there social pressure for those who remain to change whether they like it or not? Of course, there is. That or be depressed about the congregation being on the decline. Of course those aren’t the only two optional reactions. But that’s often how people feel and rarely is there an effective voice of reason in the midst to sway them.

    That being a possibility elsewhere: is it really the case that one congregation does not have any “rom 14”-like responsibility to other congregations? i’m not saying my personal experience sways me that Rom 14 means even entire congregations must bow to the standards of the most legalistic church in town, but i do think that saying that one church’s practice doesn’t effect another is unrealistic.


  8. Guy, you’ve made good points. I’ve seen cases where the differences between the “conservatism” of two congregations are more important in the eyes of the leaders than in the eyes of the members. So the leaders see it as compromise when a member migrates from the more conservative congregation to the less conservative. The members, on the other hand, may not see it that way. I don’t think most folks who move from one to the other are compromising their own convictions. They just don’t think the differences are that important. At least, that’s been my experience. YMMV, of course.

  9. Guy and Alan,

    I have to say that my experience is that members tend to be less concerned about doctrinal niceties than the preacher or elders. And I’ve seen a lot of very legalistic people transformed by being exposed to a better kind of church — even though they originally felt uncomfortable with the experience.

    There’s a difference between sinning against your conscience and feeling uncomfortable. For a long time after I’d intellectually concluded that instrumental music in worship is no sin, I still felt like fleeing from the room when exposed to instrumental worship. Those crazy conditioned reflexes from childhood don’t disappear just because we know better.

  10. I can’t help but mention a situation at our congregation. We have a member who has requested that the elders or worship minister forewarn her of any public participation by a female in the upcoming Sunday morning assembly so that she can stay home and not be subjected to this practice. If it is conducted by men then she will attend. How do you achieve consensus on that one?

  11. Randy,

    I actually commend her for being willing to allow the elders to go ahead by sitting home rather than showing up and making a show of walking out or pitching a fit or threatening to leave etc. I might suggest, however, that she come to church anyway and volunteer in the nursery or children’s church.

    The elders could have two services to accommodate members with scruples concerning women. She could sit in the back and quietly step into the lobby while a woman leads prayer. There’s no reason for her to miss the entire service. So her response is not the best one for someone with her scruples, but it’s better than most!

    Ultimately, it comes down to teaching and prayer. Many members are so certain they know God’s will they refuse to attend classes they disagree with. If she is going to remain a member, she must submit to the elders (within her conscience), and so must be willing to study with them on these kinds of issues.

    Obviously, even very bright, good-hearted people don’t agree on everything. There may come a point where she has to leave that congregation — if she is unpersuaded and the elders choose to have women participate in every service. She can’t demand that the entire congregation give up their freedom over this issue, anymore than a one-cup Christian could join a church and demand that the congregation switch to one-cup services only. It’s obvious that she’s not being tempted to sin. Rather, it comes down to teaching, loving persuasion, Bible study, prayer, and patience.

  12. Our member will be absent again tomorrow since we will have one of our female members reading her original psalm to the congregation. I understand your commending her as opposed to causing a scene by walking out. However I wonder about that. I’m afraid even a small number of these “boycotts” will be divisive which I believe is a real sin.

  13. Is it a brave decision or a chicken one? I think I’ll have to think on that one. I, too have problems with people leaving for this little problem or that one, but I also have a problem with refusing to “boycott” and have to sit there at something that I have a scriptural problem with.
    Randy, you say that divisiveness is the real sin, but maybe she sees real sin in what your church is doing.

  14. Randy, Anne,
    While this note chain is thinking about the subject of gender roles in congregational worship, I will comment:

    I know Jay is aware of some relatively recent research that sheds new light on the question of gender roles and congregational leadership. He has not mentioned, but as the author I will comment that it is documented in the recently-released 21st Century Christian publication Deceiving Winds. I have added the URL if an interest in seeing more information.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton

  15. Thanks Bruce for the link, I am interested in reading it.

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