How many times has this scene played out in an assembly near you? A church member approaches the elders with a fresh idea – maybe an outreach event or a new song. Perhaps a proposed change to one of the meetings to freshen things up. They feel certain that their suggestion is both biblical and helpful and so they are shocked to be received with less than warmly open arms. In fact, the opposition they come up against seems out of proportion with the small change they proposed. They leave discouraged, disheartened and confused.
What’s going on here?
Imagine there’s a large box resting on a table. Inside the box is the New Testament assembly as we know it. Everything we believe, everything we do. Our statement of faith as well as our practices – biblical and traditional, preferences and convictions, ordinance and governance – they’re all inside the box.
We like our box. We love our box. It’s special – different than so many other boxes. It is a box worth considering, discussing and defending.
Peeling back the lid
The only trouble is that many, like the fictitious elder in our opening scene, have a hard time peeling back the lid and looking inside. For them, it’s all a part of the package. It’s all a part of the whole. So when a part of the box is questioned or altered, it’s perceived as an attack on the whole. It is the New Testament assembly itself that is being threatened and they respond in kind. They respond just as you would want them to if biblical ordinances were being undermined. Meanwhile their member was just suggesting, say, a small group Bible study. Herein lies the miscommunication.
Weighing the contents
Now, there are many assemblies that are thriving and many that are not. It is my observation that the ones that are thriving are the ones who have been willing to open the box, carefully examine all that it contains and hold every item up to the light of Scripture.
Because, after all, not everything in the box is created equal.
At the core of our practices are clear, Biblical principles. These are the ones that account for the beauty of the box and for the shining testimony of early brethren churches nearly two hundred years previous. They discovered these precious truths and applied them to their day and started doing church a certain way. And so the box began to fill with wonderful traditions and practices that were consistent with the Biblical teaching but were not all specifically prescribed by Scripture. Practices that were a blessing to them and a light to their communities.
We have inherited that box. And what a gift! What an invaluable heritage!
But the very principles that produced the box now demand that we look inside of it. If the Bible is our ultimate authority then we must distinguish between biblical practices and ones which are not strictly so. We cannot approach them both in the same way. We cannot defend them both with the same zeal. To place our preferences on the same footing as Scripture does significant injury to the concept of biblical authority. We risk discouraging our members, driving them away and hindering the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Traditions and practices must be held up to the light of Scripture, and where there is freedom, they may be prayerfully changed if doing so will better serve our congregation and our communities. As we do this, we will doubtless move further on from the form of the original assemblies, but much nearer to their heart.
We must be willing to look into the box, lest we find it loaded on a hearse and carried off in a sad procession.