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This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is that congregation "sound"?

i remember when i was in seminary, we threw the word "sound" around a lot when inquiring about different congregations. There was an unspoken but understood list of things which served as criteria for whether a church was sound or not. It meant things like whether or not a church allowed women in leadership roles over men, whether or not their musical worship included anything beyond congregational singing, and maybe what their particular position was regarding divorce and remarriage.

Of course, i encountered a lot of people who thought those criteria were completely wrong and misguided. They thought this was all nothing but nitpicking or majoring in minors. They tended to have criticisms of "sound" congregations that i found myself agreeing with. 'What about how much they love each other or what service their doing for their communities?' Quite a fair question, i thought. But these people i encountered seemed to be as lop-sided as the others. Instead of asking whether or not churches were "sound," they asked whether churches were "grace-oriented" or "Spirit-oriented." So far as i could tell, all that meant was either "Is it a church that really doesn't care about 'little' things?" or "Is it a church who IS using women in leadership over men/is it a church who IS going beyond mere congregational singing in its musical worship?" etc.

Frankly, i did grow to think the critics had a good point. Why was a congregation's "soundness" based on its congregational singing, but not its care of widows and orphans? Why wasn't a church's willingness to support one another materially and monetarily part of whether or not it was "sound"? What about whether or not you could openly and transparently confess your sins to a congregation, and that congregation would respond with support, prayers, love, and accountability? Yes, the critics had a point.

But at the same time, the critics seemed no better. Just because some "soundness"-obsessed people were missing very important criteria, i don't see how that means that it really doesn't matter at all what we do in regards to musical worship or roles of men and women or teachings about divorce/remarriage, etc. It doesn't seem right to simply trade one lop-sided-ness for another.

In fact, it seems to me Jesus asked us to care about all of it.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matt 23:23)

It's true, Jesus criticized the lop-sided focus of the Pharisees. He does scold them for their backwards emphasis. But what i cannot find is where Jesus told the Pharisees that "little" things don't matter. In fact, at the end of the above quote, He told them they should have been doing all their minute division of spices all the while emphasizing more important things like justice and mercy. i find interesting and frustrating the sensitivities that exist among both extremes--where merely asking whether or not there's a right and wrong way to worship gets you labelled as NOT "grace-oriented," and merely suggesting that we try and focus on the heart of the person speaking rather than some vague comment they made gets you labelled as NOT "sound."

Maybe i've misunderstood people, but it appears to me that Jesus was neither "sound" nor "grace-oriented." It seems that Jesus models and teaches that we ought to ask precisely how God wants something done no matter how "big" or "small" the topic in question. It seems if someone asked Jesus if a church was "sound," He'd say, "not if they don't have a handle on justice and mercy." It seems if someone asked Jesus, "surely God doesn't really care that we're not dividing out a tenth of our spices, does He?" He'd say, "Yes, He does." It seems to me then, based on Jesus' comments in Matthew 23 that (1) we ought to care about all ethical matters big and small and do the right thing no matter how insignificant that may seem, and (2) recognize that even though we should do the right thing no matter what the topic, some topics are of greater weight than others.

How do we implement (1) and (2)? i, by no means, have any magic formula, but i have an idea or two.

1. i think the church has got to foster open, candid, even frighteningly honest interaction between members during church gatherings. i find it sickening that ideally church should be the one place i'm most inclined to share my deepest fears and problems, and yet practically it's the LAST place i would ever do that. Why? Some people there don't want to know my problems. They don't want to have to deal with the crap in my life. Part of it is because they assume i won't want to have to hear about or help deal with the crap in theirs. Anytime i have seen these unspoken rules broken, i've actually found the opposite to be true. The practical hurdle, though, is that i have almost no opportunity to tell other people in my church my deepest fears and problems. Why? Because in nearly every church gathering i attend, i am a completely passive participant. How are we going to confess our sins to one another when none of us get a chance to speak? And who's going to dare to be the first one to start confessing when a safe environment to do so hasn't been established? The American idea of "minding your own business" has prevented us from being a family, i think. It needs to become clear in the church that people have the freedom to say openly to any other member in that same congregation, "i am so afraid my husband's going to leave me that it's all i think about," or "right now, i'm so bitter over my father's death that i'm very angry with God," or "i'm about to lose my job, my car, and my house, and i have no idea what i'm going to do" or "i look at pornography all the time and i just can't seem to quit." And it needs to become clear in the church that when they do exercise that freedom, they will be met with support, prayers, and closeness, rather than silence, cold-shoulders, averted eyes, or lectures and scoldings. i believe that the lack of such frankness in church is the dam that prevents a river of mercy, mutual love and edification, and justice. Somewhere along the way the church developed the horribly un-Christian notion that gathering is about making an impression rather than about being genuine.

2. emphasis in preaching and teaching topics must be re-evaluated. Seriously, do we need to spend the next 13 weeks talking about why we shouldn't use instruments in worship when there's not a single person in this room who disagrees with that or has any doubts? Do we need to spend the next four sermons hearing about how women shouldn't be elders or preachers when there's not a single woman in our congregation vying for either position nor is there a single man in the congregation trying to force a woman into such a position? i believe we must develop a needs-based teaching. If a topic is still a problem in the congregation, then why'd we leave it? (why stop teaching, studying, and preaching about spiritual disciplines until people actually start practicing them?) i know some may be thinking, but won't you eventually run out of things to say? Maybe it's not about saying things. Maybe it's about listening. Ever considered asking a question and letting others do the talking? "What keeps you from practicing prayer as a spiritual discipline?" (God forbid anyone other than the man behind the giant block of wood do any talking during the sermon!)

3. not just emphasis of certain content of preaching, but also the way even needed-topics are handled. so much religious teaching treats people as though they are mere data-processors. "Okay, i'll preach about pornography." SERMON: "Pornography is bad and evil. Don't do it. and here's a eleventy-seven jillion reasons why it's bad." Seriously? Do you really think the people who are struggling with it are IGNORANT of the fact that pornography is bad and they shouldn't do it? Do you really think they are incapable of coming up with reasons why it's bad? How about teaching in such a way that actually meets them in their struggle? How about giving practical ways to get better and better at staying away from it? How about actually offering accountability to them--"if it's what you need to beat this and you want my help, i will personally come over and sit with you while you're on the computer"?

4. it's time to let go of both (and i did say BOTH) old for the sake of old and new for the sake of new. "it's tradition" isn't really any more or less of a legitimate reason for maintaining a practice than "it's new and progressive" is for starting one. You'll live without a choir. Your head won't explode just because there's a view screen instead of songbooks. You won't curl up and die just because no one's clapping. If you feel you can't worship God without such, how is that any different than the person across the room who feels she can't worship God without some traditional way of doing things? If you haven't got any reason to resist a change other than "but that's not the way we've always done it," it's time to let go and quit insisting on getting your way. If you haven't got any reason to implement a change other than "but i'd like it better that way and that's how churches are doing it these days," it's time to let go and quit insisting on getting your way. If a new way doesn't glorify God more or accomplish more for the kingdom than an old way, why the change? If an old way isn't getting the job done very well, why keep it? Before you sit around huffing and puffing about how important your way is to you and people not understanding that, how much time have you spent trying to understand why someone else's way is important to him?

6 comments:

kingdomseeking said...

Guy,

Thank you for your post. I too wish we could be a church where everyone could be authentic with both their faith victories and their faith defeats, while being loved and encouraged rather than being scolded for still being human.

One thing... The verse you cite from Matt 23.23, Jesus is speaking to people under the law. Many in the Churches of Christ have mistakenly held the view that the New Testament is just another law (menaing constitional law). I don't read the NT that way and therefore I don't believe it contains a pattern to be followed, rather it teaches us about the Pattern we are to follow - the person of Jesus.

Any ways, thanks for the post.

Rex

reborn1995 said...

Rex,

i appreciate your thoughts. Have you ever heard of Celebrate Recovery? i participate in the program here in OKC and i always leave wishing we did church more like CR.

i recognize the audience specificity of the Matthew passage, but i still think it's appropriate for at least two reasons.
(1) Phariseeism is precisely the accusation made against the "soundness-obsessed" types, and thus investigating how Jesus actually dealt with and criticized the Pharisees is entirely relevant to the modern debate.
(2) Even if we all took the person of Christ to be the pattern instead of something else, there could nonetheless arise "old" and "new" ways of following that pattern and similar factionalization could ensue.

PepeGrande said...

Guy,

Here is an idea. I believe that function and Spirit shape the form. This may be too simple. Here is an example. The act of taking up a special collection was instructed by Paul to the church in Corinth for a special contribution so that he would not have to collect it when he came through. Well without reading the rest of what Paul said in context. We understood lay by and store on the first day of the week as a global command for all churches until the return of Christ. When in reality it was special instruction for the church in Corinth. Now if a church today took up the collection on Saturday or Thursday they would probably be castigated as “unsound”. Well if we look at what the early church did with the money that gave we see a “function”. Here is an example In Acts 2 the apostles took the offerings and distributed them so there was no “need”. They extinguished the need with their giving, they gave because they loved others not to meet some 10% requirement or complete the worship act of giving. Now I would suggest that the intervals and frequencies of giving or taking up a collection should follow the function of taking care of people, vanquishing social injustice etcetera. If we put form first and the function is crippled than I would say that is bordering on unsoundness. I believe this principle is applicable for most of the forms. Your scripture about Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees is pertinent. I think he was saying you should have understood that doing these specific acts had deeper purpose and function so don’t stop doing them, but let mercy, love etcetera drive the form. Just some thoughts. The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath!

reborn1995 said...

i appreciate your thoughts here. i think you're spot-on regarding what the scriptures teach regarding the collection.

Where i differ in analysis from you is that i think our mistake regarding the collection lies in misunderstand what the scripture teaches regarding form. i don't think it's a matter of us simply allowing form to trump function or "Spirit" as you say, but rather, that we have simply misinterpreted what form is being presented. It's been clear enough to me for several years now that the only form taught in the NT regarding the collection is that it's practice should be as regular as a given need (provided the need is something we ought to be collecting for). while 1Cor 16 does indicate to us that quite a number of congregations would've been engaging in the same practice regularly and over a period of time, we have grossly neglected a very obvious and clear circumstance-specific reason and need for the wide-spread-ness of that practice. further, we have completely ignored the fact that we have no evidence at all that such a practice was engaged in prior to the 1Cor 16 instruction, nor following the meeting of that need.

you're certainly right that many would use that misinterpretation as a test of "soundness," but again, i think that's a mere question of whether a certain criteria of soundness is justified as a criteria; it is not a question of whether we should measure soundness at all.

Matthew said...

Great post, I have thought of these ideas too. Wrote an article for the advocate on these lines. You can find it on the church's webpage under "More than Sound, Health."

reborn1995 said...

Matt--good stuff, man. i went a read it and would've given you kudos on your site, but i couldn't leave a comment on just the article. hopefully the future will usher in far less lop-sided-minded-ness (how's that for an descriptive term?) among churches.

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