Efforts to control the sheep
Various means are used by pastors and elders to keep their sheep from “straying”: Sermons that stress their authority and the consequent obedience to be rendered to them, their over-arching philosophy of ministry and example of how they treat the sheep (especially those who raise critical concerns), exhortations not to talk with any people who are critical of leadership, and finally membership covenants. Fleshing all of this out would take me well beyond the scope of this paper, so I will have to be brief.
After several months of sermonizing on the authority of elders and the duties of the sheep, the people of our prior church learned where they stood. The pastor even referred to himself, in relation to the elders, as “the first among equals” in one sermon. Embedded in those sermons was their “new way” to deal with “complainers.” They said that no one’s issue would be addressed unless and until the elders were convinced that their “motives and attitudes” were sufficiently pristine as they raised an issue of concern. (Gosh, I thought omniscience was an attribute of God alone. Hmmmm.) Only after the complainer passed this test would the substance of his concerns be addressed. This obviously is designed to put fear into the hearts of would-be complainers and to minimize their raising concerns. Additional sermons took place (with yelling) telling the sheep not to talk with those who have left the church who speak critically of leadership. And so we have the sheep sealed off from meaningful, (perhaps critical) dialogue from within the walls of the church, and they’re also being cut off from criticism from without. This works really well to inoculate church leadership from criticism. There is no accountability in these kinds of places, and yes this philosophy of ministry is CULTISH.
I am convinced, not withstanding the arguments to the contrary about the benefits of official church membership, that there is a reason why Scripture is silent about this. While many good men whom I respect would disagree with me on my take on local church covenants, I think they do much more harm than good. For those godly pastors and elders who have formal membership covenants that are not “control mechanisms,” I commend them. In our case, the elders, behind closed doors, produced a membership covenant that they “encouraged” their members to sign and date. I spoke out against it vociferously, given its controlling, and abusive language. For those who have seen the document outside of the church, most have been appalled by it. I won’t publish it here, but I will address one feature of it that is a telltale sign of legalistic abuse. If ever your pastor or elders speak of church membership as a “marriage” between you and the leaders/congregants, do yourself a favor and run for the door. Every Christian is wedded to Christ alone. He is not married to men who run churches. When one leaves, he is not “divorcing” his spouse. He, in most cases, is leaving to join another group within the body of Christ, thereby expressing his belief in the unity of the body. If the elders speak of having a “parental” role to play in relation to their sheep, also run for the door. Your relationship to others in the body of Christ, including elders, is that of a sibling. We are all brothers and sisters, and certainly not the children of pastors. We have in Scripture something called the priesthood of all believers. That notion entails more than how all Christians have proximity to God through one mediator; it also speaks to the issue of function. There are some fifty-eight “one another” imperatives in the New Testament that provide the means by which the body of Christ is to serve one another in love. Nowhere in the Bible do we find “ministry” vested primarily in the hands of one man or small group of men. Church covenants of the kind I referenced are straight jackets designed to control and manipulate sheep, even in how they leave, which brings me to another area.
One can learn volumes about a church in how they treat people who leave. Do they subject the departing Christians to ridicule, threats and cruelty, or do they treat them with love and grace? Examine what your church does in this area. Have the elders flesh out in detail what criteria for leaving is acceptable to them. If they produce a list of criteria detailing legitimate reasons for leaving, ask them to show you in Scripture where they find that list. After all, these men hold to Sola Scriptura, so make them show you where their rules are found in the Bible, because they assert that to leave in a godly fashion you have to follow their rules, and surely they must admit, at least in theory, that Scripture defines godliness. There is a lot of “small print” (the white space between the lines) in most church membership covenants, so you must press this issue before leadership. One extrabiblical protocol I fully endorse is the notion that elders need to interview people who leave with a genuine interest in knowing their “whys.” A godly elder board will recognize that they don’t have it all figured out and that they are not immune to sinful behavior or wrong doctrine/practice. If they did these interviews routinely, they might well find a pattern of issues that crop up with each departing family. If that is the case, and if they are wise men, they will consider, based upon a consensus of expressed concerns, that they need to make some changes. Over time, this can have a very positive impact on local churches. In our situation, I offered to meet with our elders to give them our “whys,” and they declined. What a missed opportunity they had.
In contrast to what typically goes on in this area, I want to tell you about a wonderful church and how they dealt with a former member.
In November of 2010, my identical twin brother (Don) died of a brain tumor. A year before he died, he told me that he had asked a pastor from a church he and his wife hadn’t attended in over two decades to officiate his service. This main teaching elder gladly agreed to honor his request, even though Don left over substantive theological differences with this man. Since that time, my brother and his family had attended two or three other churches.
I asked Don why he would have asked this man to do his service, given the amount of time elapsed since they ended their seven-year involvement there and the theological issues, etc., and he said, “Well, I appreciate Bob’s core theology (mostly reformed) but the main reason is that when we had our conversation with him telling him that we were leaving, he simply told us that we would be missed, and that they appreciated our family’s ministry efforts at the church. He also said that we depart with his blessing, despite our theological differences, but he wished us the Lord’s blessing in the days ahead.” In a nutshell, it was how Don and his wife were treated at that difficult time of departure. Don said, “He was just so kind and loving to us about the whole thing. We were greatly blessed by his attitude.”
Fast forward twenty-three years. Not only did Don’s old church host his memorial service, but they organized feeding the four-hundred-plus people who attended, absorbing significant financial costs in the process. This, they did for a man who hadn’t been a member there for over twenty years, for a man who left that church over differences in theology. For all pastors and elders who have ears to hear, I hope you are listening. What a testimony to the unity of the body of Christ and how His Gospel was so winsomely on display that day. I praise God for that church and the people there who sacrificed as they did to minister to me, and all who attended.
Lastly, I want to exhort church leaders—especially those who embrace the doctrines of the sovereign grace of God.
For the sake of the Gospel, please love your people UNCONDITIONALLY. (This is what we call Christianity.) My plea to you who lead in churches is to simply love as you have been loved, forgive as you have been forgiven. Meet people wherever they are in their walk of faith with a listening, compassionate ear, even for those prickly complainers. Meet them where Christ meets you every nanosecond of your life. Deep six your membership covenant if it is short on grace and long on law. If you say you believe in a plurality of leadership, take the initiative to make that a functioning reality in your church, which means you might well have to give up some of your power and authority. Create an environment in your churches that encourages communication from the sheep, even, and especially, difficult communication. (When I took our pastor to lunch to talk with him about his sermons, after hearing me exhort him to stick to the text more closely, he responded, “I don’t tell you how to do your artwork. Preaching is my craft, like artwork is yours.”) With love and compassion, seek people out who leave, to learn from them. I am not suggesting that you will always get valuable feedback in those situations, but over time, you will profit from that practice. Never preach to individuals from the pulpit, and that means more than not mentioning names. The sheep are not that stupid, and they will know when you are targeting others. Except under the most extreme circumstances, don’t issue edicts to your flock not to speak to or remain friends with those who leave. If you want your church to grow, love your people, preach grace in your ecclesiology, not just soteriology, and be an example to them. It’s monkey see, monkey do.
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.
Colossians 3:12-15 (NASB*)
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
Micah 6:8 (KJV)
Ron Adair is a freelance artist who received his formal training at the Washington University School of Fine Arts at St. Louis, Missouri. His illustration credits include five U.S. Postage Stamps, the official oil portrait of Jack Nicklaus for the United States Golf Association, book jacket illustrations for the autobiographies of Roger Staubach and Brooks Robinson as well as the Hall for Fame poster for Mr. Robinson, and artwork of John Wayne which Colt Industries used to gold etch into their SAA .45 commemorative for Wayne. Ron currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife Beth. They have five children. You can view his portfolio at RonAdair.com.
Copyright © 2012 Ron Adair. All Rights Reserved.