Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Local Church Doesn't Belong in the Hallway

Reflections on why pastors/elders must commit to a confessional statement...

“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions - as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?’

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.” ---CS Lewis

For several years I struggled with finding my identity within Evangelicalism. I wondered if there was a theological tradition to which I belonged. I wondered if it was even right to want to belong to a particular theological tradition. Should I not just remain living in the “hallway” of this “house” called Christianity? Why choose a “room?”

As I read and studied men from various schools of thought within evangelical Christianity, I realized that various hermeneutical methodologies were employed by different traditions within evangelical circles. I also realized that each of these schools of thought came to different theological convictions with regard to the character and work of God. These different hermeneutical methodologies and resulting doctrines are what define the various “rooms” in the “house of Christianity.”

I also realized that while the “house of Christianity” operates by a certain set of biblically defined doctrines and principles that those in each and every “room” agree we all share in common, each of the “rooms” also operates by a set of what they consider to be biblically defined doctrines and principles. Further, I realized that while the more general and universally agreed to doctrines of Christianity are useful for keeping unity when we meet in the “hallway,” they are not sufficient for maintaining unity in the close fellowship required in individual “rooms.”

I spent the majority of my Christian life in a church, and even was a pastor in a church, which was trying to live in the “hallway.” I am not saying this in a derogatory manner because I believe this church was laboring to hold firm to truths of Scripture that are central and around which we all agree to gather in the “hallway” for occasional fellowship, worship, and evangelism. I believe this local church was diligently preaching, praying, and working to glorify God through shepherding his people. So, why was I frustrated? Why did I so often find myself at odds with decisions in priorities, preaching, and programming for the church?

It was not until I left to plant a church that I discovered I was frustrated, and at odds, with my brothers in Christ because I was trying to live in the “hallway,” when I had already chosen a “room.” I was already committed to a body of doctrine that I believed was thoroughly biblical and that defines priorities, preaching, and programming in the church. I also realized that others with whom I shared this “hallway” had chosen other “rooms.” We were all operating by “house rules,” and simultaneously were operating by different “room rules.” While the “house rules” helped us maintain unity, there was also a percolating disunity that I experienced. This disunity was driven by the fact that we all hoped the church would move into our “room,” and while we were gracious “hallmates,” we had different rules and expectations that caused fellowship to be strained and shallow. These differences were “the elephant in the hall” that we rarely discussed.

Does this lack of deep unity and fellowship in my former pastoral staff and elders betray a defect in character? No. In fact, I think this problem is a derivative of a virtuous evangelical desire to meet in the “hallway” as much as possible. This is a desire that is so strong that many local churches are trying to “pitch their tents and camp in the hallway.” However, they have failed to understand that the deepest unity and fellowship is found in the common doctrinal commitments, mission, and core values found in each “room.” As Lewis said, “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

My study of the Word of God has led me into the “room” known as Reformed theology. This is a theology that I believe most accurately reflects the biblical teachings of God and his work. Further, I am not only in the “room” of Reformed theology, I am called to be a leader in that “room.” Therefore, I must operate as a leader in that “room” according to the priorities, principles, and practices that are consistent with Reformed theology. God did not call me to pastor the local church and provide me with a set of biblical commitments that are limited to the “hallway.”

I must preach reformed theology. I must shape the training of elders, the discipleship of believers, the evangelism of the lost, the corporate worship services, the small group meetings, the children’s ministry, the counseling ministry, the prayer meetings, the way we live in community all in accord with what I believe is sound doctrine. If I lead the church in a manner inconsistent with my biblical commitments, I would be, at best, serving only milk instead of meat. I would be a leader who is getting fat on the word while everyone else in the church is being underfed. At worst, I would be a leader who is disingenuous and who lies to his people.

I do not shepherd this local church alone. I am not the only leader in the “room.” God has called other men to lead alongside of me. How do we insure that we maintain deep unity and fellowship among our leaders, and consequently, in our church? How do we define the priorities, principles, and practices of the “room?” How do we determine what will be preached, or what food will be served, in our church? This is vitally important for it is in the faith that true unity is found in the local church (Ephesians 4:13). We must have elders who are able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). We must teach what we believe accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). We must follow the pattern of sound words we have been taught and guard the deposit that has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Certainly, we would maintain that more has been entrusted to us and must be taught and protected by our elders than the minimal doctrines that we agree to in the “hallway.” Can anyone really argue that our doctrine of who God is and how he works in predestination, election, calling, justification, and sanctification is not important enough to define the priorities, principles, and practices of our church by? Is it true that our view of man and his condition, of the church and its ordinances, of the biblical covenants and their fulfillment, of the Holy Spirit and his gifts are all doctrines that should be left to the privacy of the pastor’s study, while the majority of the local church lives in the “hallway?” Is it really possible to leave those doctrines to occasional sermons and to the discretion of some to practice? Is it really preferable to make this satisfyingly rich food into an occasional meal, and withhold it from being a staple of the church? If we are committed to the Reformed view of the Gospel, why wouldn’t we serve it to people in every sermon and ministry? How can we truly be a Gospel-centered church, if we believe we are leaving elements of the Gospel for only those who can feed themselves? As a wise pastor once asked me, “How can a man called of God to be a shepherd commissioned by Jesus to ‘teaching them all that I have commanded you’ and to the apostolic injunction and example of ‘I have not hesitated to declare to you the whole counsel of God’ see his teaching ministry as less in scope than what he believes and confesses himself? If what he holds to in his own confession is not teachable to his flock, or defendable with his flock, then why does he believe it is pleasing and glorifying to God for him to hold these beliefs, and edifying to his own soul, but not to his congregation?”

At the end of the day, I do not really believe it is preferable, or possible, for a local church to camp in the “hallway.” If the elders of a local church do not teach and defend a much more comprehensive confessional statement, then the sheep will develop their own doctrines. The most positive outcome will be that the church will be left with factions and pockets of people who hold to various doctrinal positions, but who are loosely unified around the doctrines of the “hallway.” The depth of fellowship that is experienced in a community that is unified in the faith, and on a common mission, will be lost. Further, the elders will adopt a set of “hallway rules” that value unity over truth and pragmatism over principle, rather than move into a “room” that finds unity in the truth and practice that springs from principle. If the elders fail to adopt these “hallway rules,” their church will split. If they do adopt them, their church will slowly die from malnutrition because the meal isn’t being served in the “hallway.”

No comments: