The Diverse Local Church
Local Assemblies are a gathering place for a diversity of people. As Paul states in Colossians 3:11, people come from different cultural backgrounds (Jews and Gentiles), different religious backgrounds (circumcised and uncircumcised), and different social backgrounds (slave or free). Beyond this normal diversity Paul said there were also Barbarians and Scythians.
Even within the same culture, people can differ in their view of what is acceptable behavior and practice and what is not. Upbringing, values, and experiences can all have an effect on someone’s view of life.
In the Christian life there are absolutes in terms of behavior such as holy living, not committing adultery, not bearing false witness, and numerous others. There are also a whole lot of areas of life, individually and corporately, that are not addressed with a “thus says the Lord”. In these areas, personal convictions and preferences dictate views and actions.
Areas of Conviction or Preference
One of the keys to handling differences is to understand those areas that are covered in Scripture and those that are not. A few examples – some believers refuse to vote in elections feeling that they are citizens of Heaven and have no business participating in elections here. There are others who feel strongly that Christians should vote as part of being salt and light. Neither position is specifically addressed in Scripture so it comes down to conviction and preference.
Another area of difference has to do with life insurance. There are some Christians that feel it displays a lack of faith and it is poor stewardship to buy life insurance. There are others who feel it is part of providing for their family and is a display of unselfish prudence. Again, there is no specific verse that addresses the matter.
As a recent posting showed, there are differences of opinion about Christmas traditions and what parents tell their children. These preferences are set due to experiences and upbringing. In those differences, who is right? Our personal preferences will be the deciding factor as to which side of the issue we accept.
Beware of Legalism
These preferences only become an issue when a line is crossed into legalism. When one person thinks everyone should share their convictions and makes this a measure of spirituality. It is at this point that problems and conflict result. To have convictions and preferences is not a problem, as long as they are not imposed on others or don’t lead to a judgmental spirit.
The more difficult area for preferences is within an assembly, in a corporate setting. It is fine for people individually and an assembly collectively to have preferences on how things are done. That is part of the diversity within the assembly and speaks to the autonomy of each local church. The problems start when personal preferences are elevated above and beyond what Scripture has to say and are held tenaciously.
In regard to corporate life, the New Testament gives very little direction and is silent in so many areas that some believers have opinions. There is no mention of time for meetings, format, seating arrangements, song books, musical instruments, Sunday school, or whether coffee and tea should be served between meetings. In spite of the silence of Scripture, many have strong preferences and opinions on such issues.
Many believers over the years have left assemblies due to their preferences not being adhered to by the local church. In addition there have been countless conflicts over issues and practices not covered by Scripture. A partial list may include: instruments, single cups, dress, Bible versions, modern choruses, format, and so on. The list may also contain more mundane things like color choices, chairs, carpets, social activities, and times of meetings.
How to Handle Preferences
There are several ways to address the pressure that preferences have on a local assembly. Tongue in cheek one could say that if you get rid of people you get rid of your problems. From a more spiritual perspective, I as an individual need to understand what is scriptural and what is merely preference. Most of us have opinions or preferences on how we like things to be done, but we must realize that our views are not a matter of scriptural correctness on most issues. This takes humility, maturity, and charity on my part to accept that others have different views and that their preferences may be as valid as mine. I must endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This can be done with a proper attitude on my part. “All lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” (See Ephesians 4:1-3).
The bigger issue is how an assembly deals with a variety of preferences without becoming stagnant and culturally irrelevant. There is always a danger of a strong willed person (or people) dictating the practices and preferences of the whole assembly. I have seen leadership paralysed for fear of offending strong willed opinionated person(s). There were assemblies in North America and in Britain that died because the preferences of many or of few (or even one) dictated assembly life even in the face of serious decline.
The point of Paul’s argument in Romans 14 is that we should “receive the weaker brother”, but the assembly does not have to adopt “his scruples”. It takes love and wisdom by godly elders to move an assembly in the area of preferences. The sheep have to be loved and cared for but also motivated to see the implications of some preferences. My preference may be to have a format and programs just like we had forty years ago but experience tells me that our culture, both Christian and secular, has changed and is continuing to change. The English language has evolved, commitment levels have dropped, reaching the un-churched is more difficult, and the distance people travel to “church” has increased.
Adherence to preferences is not the same thing as adherence to principles. The truth of God’s word, the purpose of church life, the preaching of the Gospel and the preeminence of Christ must all be held tenaciously. The preferences and some practices of a local church should be evaluated and addressed before the assembly goes into serious decline or even dies.