Extremes in Churches of Christ
Written by Steve Cummings
A few years ago Joe Beam wrote an article entitled, “What is Happening to Churches of Christ?” In this article Joe explained what he thinks is happening within our fellowship that is causing increasing isolation between brethren and churches.
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The article struck a nerve with a lot of brethren and continues to resonate with many even today, including myself.
Since its initial publication Joe tells me that the article has circulated around the world and has continually popped up through the years in various publications and discussions, and that he is amazed that it has even made its way into the classrooms of some of our brotherhood schools. This article has served as a good foundation for discussion concerning the many issues causing tension in the church today that seem to be crippling her effectiveness.
After giving a few of my thoughts about the article to Joe he suggested that I write a companion article to express some of my views. I accepted only because of my love for our fellowship, the importance of the issues at hand, and because I believe dialogue needs to be ongoing among brethren so that a cure can be found, wounds can be medicated, a sick fellowship can eventually be healed, and the church can fulfill her God-given purposes before it is too late.
Although I will include and quote large segments of Joe’s article I do suggest that you read or re-read Joe’s article before considering my thoughts. You can find the article here.
Some ask, “What will it take for the church to grow again?” Maybe a better question would be, “What is keeping the church from growing?” Once this second question is answered, the first one is automatically answered. I am not sure how accurate the statement was but I recently heard a brother state during his sermon at a lectureship that “Studies show that ninety-two percent of our congregations are in decline.” God designed the church to grow. It is a fact that anything that is alive and healthy will grow, and I am convinced that the primary reason the church as a whole is not growing like she should is simply because she is not healthy. She is infected with a hard to diagnose and hard to cure ailment produced by a self-inflicted wound that must first be diagnosed and understood before proper treatment can be administered.
Both formal and informal research has been going on throughout the brotherhood for several years now in hopes that we can eventually isolate the problem and ultimately discover a cure for this plague that has ravaged the body and demobilized her in many ways, especially in the area of evangelism. It is beyond belief that two thousand years ago when Christ was hanging on the cross, that in his mind he would have in mind, that one day a growing church would be considered an oddity in the world, and that the average disciple of Christ would rarely even attempt to evangelize the lost in an aggressive way.
Certainly you will realize that I am no expert on the subject I am dealing with, and you might disagree with much of what I say, and if I’m wrong I will be glad you did. My goal is not to be the lawyer who wins a high profile case, a researcher who ultimately finds the cure for a dreaded disease, or a doctor who prescribes the medicine that heals the disease, but a nurse who administers the prescribed medication in a humble way, and then a therapist who helps in the recovery process. We need fewer doctors and more nurses in the church today anyway. In this spirit I offer my thoughts for your consideration, so be nice to me.
Like Joe stated in his article, my ideas are not based on thoroughly researched data, and my conclusions are not built around strong statistical evidence. I too am basing my conclusions on observations I have made as I have worked in full-time ministry and traveled throughout the brotherhood over the past several years. So keep in mind that opinions are only as good as the sources from which those opinions are derived, and since I am the source of the opinions in question, I encourage you to view these opinions initially as questionable at best. Joe said it best in his article when he stated: “My purpose isn’t to get you to buy my views but to get discussion started.” My purpose is to make sure the good discussion continues.
If you’ll remember, Joe graphically placed church members into six separate categories ranging from Left Wing/Inclusive, to Right Wing/Exclusive. And as Joe said, “these categories explain more about what is happening to us than do the types of churches.” Although Joe assigned labels to the six different categories of people, I don’t think he intended to label anyone, but rather to create a “common vocabulary so that we can understand the current dynamics of our brotherhood tensions.” Similarly, I conduct a workshop that in one segment labels one group as “skunks” and another group as “turtles.” This is not done in an effort to label, show disrespect or to defame, but to illustrate what “skunky” and “turtle” behaviors are like, and how they parallel human behavior. “Skunks” are outward blame oriented people who spray things that threaten them, while “turtles” are inward blame oriented who stuff their emotions. The ultimate behavior extreme for the church “turtle” is “spiritual suicide.” However, the ultimate behavior extreme for the church “skunk” is “spiritual homicide.” The “skunk” attacks others, while the “turtle” attacks self. Both are represented in the church at different levels.
For the sake of the discussion at hand, allow me to give Joe’s synopsis of the six different categories of brethren. He goes into more detail than what I’m giving here.
“Exasperateds” are those to the far Left. Exasperateds are so fed up with the conflicts in our fellowship that they want to leave the Church of Christ. They generally view our brotherhood as denominational and feel that the negatives of other denominations are no worse than ours. Often they carry a great deal of personal hurt from the words or actions of Satisfieds or Zealots. That hurt strongly influences their feelings about the brotherhood and makes them lean toward cynicism and hopelessness about the future churches of Christ. They usually aren’t considered Change Agents because they carry no hope for change. They dwell on the verge of leaving us altogether.
“Opens” are people who are comfortable with the nontraditional actions and doctrines of Innovative churches. They want to stay in fellowship with the Church of Christ but they put greater emphasis on their own spiritual development than on the judgment of other churches in the fellowship. They are often labeled Change Agents. They feel that certain changes in methodology and certain changes in traditionally accepted beliefs (like grace, fellowship, worship) must take place before the church will grow spiritually and numerically. They sometimes move toward becoming Exasperateds as they react to vitriolic attacks from Satisfieds or Zealots who try to force them back into more traditional views and actions. They typically don’t see yielding to the demands of more traditional brothers as an act of compromise, but as an act of accepting spiritual lethargy or death.
“Cautious” worry about losing or harming their relationship with people in the Traditional churches. They want new and exciting things, are excited about their own spiritual growth, but have just enough fear of the “innovations” to be uncomfortable and concerned. Certainly not Change Agents, they retreat toward more traditional positions when pushed to make decisions between innovative or traditional actions or beliefs.
“Searchers” feel that changes have to take place to make the church vibrant but strongly fear making changes that may destroy the “identity” of the church. They like some things they see in Innovative churches. They fear the loss of relationships of those they love in Traditional churches and often have questions about the “rightness” of some things the Innovative churches do. They would be ecstatic if someone could show them how to grow a spiritually vibrant and growing church while remaining totally within boundaries accepted by Satisfied and Traditional Churches. When they are members of churches swelling from the death of smaller, dying churches, they enjoy the growth and the good things that come with it while harboring a secret fear that they are only delaying the inevitable realization that they haven’t yet found the church they long for.
“Satisfieds” like things like they’ve been since the 1950s. They don’t see any need to change and question or attack any change perceived as different from what the church has been during their lifetime. Neither increasing nor decreasing numbers of members affects their views or practices at all. They feel that being doctrinally “sound” is the only test of faithfulness. “Sound doctrine” for them often translates into maintaining the views, beliefs, and practices of the church they grew up in or were converted to. They don’t question, even when they feel they don’t have good answers for what they believe or for the decline in the church’s membership. Their confidence in the church they know, the leaders of that church, and the great preachers of the past lead them into a satisfied state that exists without question or scrutiny.
“Zealots,” are the extreme or Exclusive Right Wing of the church, and like their first century namesakes, make strong attacks against everything and everyone they see as a threat to their culture and cling tenaciously to what they call the “old paths.” They believe their defense of their culture is a defense of God’s church and that conviction makes them very motivated and very aggressive. They make statements that their deductions and interpretations of the Bible are the “doctrine of Christ” and, therefore, equal to the very will of God. Therefore, they strongly condemn any statement or action not in total harmony with their deduced doctrines. They oppose many things done by the Left Wing and Innovative churches or said by Exasperated or Open people. The extreme in this group sometimes fabricate or embellish “evidence” to more forcefully attack those they feel to be a threat to the church they know. For example, they might write an article saying “this is what he said but this is what that really means.” The difference in them and the Satisfieds is their extremely negative mindset and their quick willingness to attack orally and in writing anything or anyone they see as the enemy. Satisfieds tend to attack from a protective posture, usually only attacking when they feel their church or family is personally threatened. Zealots operate in offensive movements, attacking across the brotherhood whether or not they feel their church or family is personally threatened.
Joe also states that “some of those from a category may be in a different type church than the model suggests. For example, some Exasperateds still attend Innovative or Traditional churches. Some Zealots are members of Traditional churches. Recently Innovative churches still have members who are Satisfieds but who haven’t yet felt enough discomfort to leave. Large Traditional churches have nearly every category represented but in varying degrees of numbers or strength.”
Joe further states that there are many gray areas within each model he proposes. “As a congregation or an individual moves to the right on the Inclusion/Exclusion line, they become more restrictive in whom they will fellowship. They also become more condemning of those they don’t perceive as being in their fellowship. As one comes closer to the Exclusive end of the line, he becomes more judgmental and unaccepting of those who don’t believe very similarly to him. Those who move to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line become more open in whom they fellowship. They become less judgmental and more accepting of beliefs, actions, or doctrines that they don’t personally hold.”
Joe continues, “An exception to this is the situation where those moving toward the left hold ill feelings toward those to their right who caused them pain. When that occurs, those moving to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line offer more openness in fellowship to those to their left while becoming more restrictive in the fellowship they feel or give to those on the right. While they espouse the love of God, they find it difficult or impossible to give it to those they view as Pharisees and treat them with similar disrespect to that they felt they received.”
What Causes Division in the Church
After reading Joe’s thoughts it is easy for one to conclude, “What a tangled web we weave.” Is it really that complex? I’d say, probably more so. Admittedly, the dilemma we find ourselves in today is confusing to say the least. One of the biggest problems in my estimation is that many brethren don’t really know exactly what they believe, and they’re frustrated about that as much as anything. Each “hot issue” in the church must simply be addressed based on the individual merits of the issue itself instead of throwing everyone into one theological pool or another.
An Exasperated said to me recently, “I don’t know what I want. I could sit here all day and not be able to tell you what I want, but I know I don’t want what I’m used to getting.” I said, “If you don’t know what you want then why are you so angry at those who do know what they want?” The same line of reasoning can be used by the Zealot I guess. Some are sad and heartbroken at what they see in the church today, while others are just downright angry and unable to even discuss the issues in a calm Christian spirit that doesn’t insult those of opposing opinions.
Let me say that I am not a fan of those who label anybody. However, we sometimes have to put perceived labels on things just for the sake of the argument at hand. I do not find Joe’s generic labels to have crossed the line of good taste and reason, but rather as a way of helping us to get some kind of grip on the multifaceted dynamics of our fellowship. Although the labels are not exact, nor do I believe Joe intended them to be exact, they do give us something to start with to facilitate discussion.
If I were labeling myself based on Joe’s sketch at this stage of my spiritual journey I would say I that I am an Open with leanings closer to the Cautious than the Exasperateds. However, there is much the Exasperateds have to say that appeals to me from both a biblical and emotional standpoint that the church needs to pay attention to, and not throw out the baby with the bathwater. As well, there are things the Zealots push that I believe have merit also when they demand that everything we attempt to do should be done within a context of biblical truth. What I hope to be is simply biblical.
Some of the most important principles I think Joe highlighted in his article were, “Those who move to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line become more open in whom they fellowship. They become less judgmental and more accepting of beliefs, actions, or doctrines that they don’t personally hold. An exception to this is the situation where those moving toward the left hold ill feelings toward those to their right who caused them pain. When that occurs, those moving to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line offer openness in fellowship to those to their left while becoming more restrictive in the fellowship they feel or give to those on their right. While they espouse the love of God, they find it difficult or impossible to give it to those they view as Pharisees and treat them with a similar disrespect to that they felt they received.”
Based on these statements and based on my experiences in the church over the past 22 years, 16 of them as a full-time local minister, I believe much of the problem with division in the church has to do with hurt feelings rather than doctrinal differences, although doctrinal differences are certainly there. In fact, I believe that most churches that either split or live in corporate pain without splitting (much like an unhappy marriage that keeps holding on for dear life) do so not because of doctrinal differences, but because of a lack of love and tolerance to the preferences of others who are not necessarily violating the truth of God’s word.
An Open preacher once told me that he used to be friends with a Zealot preacher, and that the thing that turned the Zealot (not his words but his description based on Joe’s labels) into such a rigid Zealot, was personal attacks on his character and integrity by Exasperateds that to this day he has never gotten over. Therefore, he is a champion of the Zealot theology even though he does not genuinely espouse all of the tenets of the Zealot faith.
On another occasion a Zealot preacher turned Exasperated preacher was described by his friend to have moved from his Zealot tendencies to far left Exasperateds tendencies due to personal attacks on his less than Zealot theological ideas. People often react out of personal pain rather than on truth and biblical facts. Perception is reality.
During the first several years of my full-time ministry in the church most of the people I worked with or came in contact with were what Joe calls Zealots, Satisfieds, and maybe a few Seekers. Some of them were very hard-nosed and even mean-spirited. They could split a theological hair into sixteen equal divisions but they seemed to lack a genuine Christ-like spirit. They rarely talked about the grace of God in a meaningful way except to illustrate how one can fall from it. They could dot every “I” and cross every “T” but they seemed to keep misspelling the words. They seemed to have more confidence in one’s ability to fall from grace than in one’s ability to stand in grace. I remember thinking, “Well maybe the “Liberals/Exasperateds” have some theological holes in the sieve but at least they are nicer than the “Legalists/Zealots.”
However, for the past several years I have had numerous opportunities to be in the company of the left-wing extreme of our fellowship and I can say without a doubt, “Man was I wrong.” I have learned that those who hold extreme views in the brotherhood, whether “legalistic or liberal,” can be equally disreputable. In fact, the two extremes in the brotherhood only lend credibility to one another. One can listen to the extreme right and conclude, “That’s the most mean-spirited attitude, and intellectually dishonest thing I’ve ever heard. I certainly want to get as far away from that as I can.” Then one can listen to the far left side and think, “That’s the most mean-spirited intellectually dishonest thing I’ve ever heard. Again, the extremes only lend credibility to one another.
After analyzing the situation I find it interesting that both extremes can be just as mean and hurtful as the other, and that the feelings of the people in the middle (Opens, Cautious, Searchers, Satisfieds) are often not even considered. It is hard to practice that “golden rule” thing isn’t it? Theologically we can understand it and wax eloquent preaching it, but emotionally it’s harder do. It just might be that the highest ranking and most sure sign of a Christ-like spirit is when one can love another he doesn’t even like, or one he disagrees with totally. The acid test is action not just words. I have always found it amazing how people can get so mad at how others are treating them, when in reality they are treating the people they’re mad at the same way they’re being treated. Fact is, from my personal experiences I have learned that the better I treat others the better they treat me, and the better I treat them the better I feel about them no matter what they have done to me. And in time they start to feel better about me also.
Joe stated, “Innovative churches carry an air of excitement but some seem to lack a clear focus of mission or what it takes to accomplish mission.” I think Joe is right that many of these folks do carry an air of excitement, but it’s often short-lived when the work and reality of their commitment hits home. Further, many of the “Innovative/Exasperateds” I know have become bitter cynical people who feel wounded by a fellowship that would not respond to them the way they thought it should. And they will tell their sad tale to anyone who will listen in the most negative, petty and condescending spirit they can possibly muster. It often sounds like they are prouder that they “broke away” than they are about where they are going. However, the “Legalists/Zealots” are often prouder of their past than their future and can spew as much venom as the Exasperateds ever thought of spewing. Fact is, when anyone comes to the conclusion that they have reached a level of biblical understanding or spiritual maturity that places them above most people, they are in trouble.
Many of the Exasperateds and Opens I know really don’t know what direction they want to go in. They wonder aimlessly based on the conviction that they don’t know where they’re going, but they certainly can’t go back to where they used to be, and they’re not even positive about where they used to be. Ironically, like the Zealots, the Exasperateds become known more for what they are against than what they are for. It’s the same spirit. It is a strange phenomenon that makes the Zealot and the Exasperated appear to be of the same emotional and sometimes theological ilk. Thus, they both lose credibility with those in the “middle” due to the inability of both sides to clearly articulate and define where they are going and why. People who are straddling the theological fence get confused, and retreat from both extremes gravitating somewhere to the middle between the ruts in the theological road.
Joe said, “Zealots are making more points of divisiveness in the brotherhood. In their move toward greater Exclusion they are making things into matters of faith that were considered matters of opinion 20 years ago.” While what Joe says here is probably true, the coin can also be flipped to reveal that some of the Innovative churches are now calling things that were considered matters of faith 20 years ago, matters of opinion today.
Joe points most all of the blame at the Zealots. While I am not very sympathetic toward the Zealot mindset, I am also not as willing as Joe to place as much of the blame on this one group or any other group for that matter. There is enough blame to go around. It seems to me that equal criticism needs to be given to the opposite extreme. While the Zealots accomplish their agenda “through their continually tightening rules of fellowship,” the Exasperateds accomplish their agenda by continually loosening rules of fellowship and with the same ferocity. It’s like a force that cannot be stopped running into a force that cannot be penetrated. Similar to Joe’s suggestions about the Zealots, the Exasperateds will probably “never see it” but will believe the real problem lies with the Satisfieds and the Zealots who continue to believe that the real problem is the Right Wing who led the church to become more and more legalistic. Both seem to overstate their side and what proves too much proves nothing. The truth can usually be found somewhere between the two extremes.
In conclusion, it is my sad opinion that none of the six sectors of the church Joe referred to is doing a very good job at all in achieving the main mission of the church, which is to evangelize the world for Christ. We seem to be folding in on top of ourselves as we spar it out over issues that are often trivial compared to the weightier matters God has commanded us to focus on, especially in the ever spiritually declining world in which we live today. Satan has done a good job distracting our attention from the things that matter most. If I look at you all the time then I never see me. Sadly, a political climate has evolved in the church where each “candidate” appears to spend more time attacking the character and trying to destroy the reputation of others, than in trying to simply be God’s man or God’s woman. A friend recently wrote, “It’s much easier to find fault with others than it is to establish my own integrity.” Maybe it is simply time to disarm and pray for healing.
It is sad when a person who calls himself a Christian and has not had an open Bible in front of a lost person in years, yet gets furious over every little thing they see in the church that they don’t like, especially when the things they don’t like are simply personal preferences and not theological wrongs. This is true for both the Exasperated and the Zealot, and everyone in between. I am constantly amazed at how a person who has not brought a single person to the Lord in years (if ever) can appear to be so passionately concerned about where the church is going, and even get angry about it. I think many respond this way out of a sense of guilt more than out of a sense of conviction. A statement I read concerning another issue at another time in the history of our fellowship speaks volumes to the point under consideration. The issue being debated was, can and should the church support orphans out of the church treasury? In the midst of the debate one astute brother stood up and with great humility stated, “Most of us have done so little to fulfill our God-given responsibility to support orphans individually that we don’t have the right to even debate what we should or should not do collectively.”
In other words we’ve got to earn our right to have our strong opinions heard, and the only way we can earn that right is by what we DO and our ATTITUDE when we do it. Jesus said, “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve…”
May God help each of us to do a better job at loving Him and at loving one another. (Matthew 22:37-40.) If we can get these two things right, then the other issues will more than likely take care of themselves.