Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that…you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
-1 Timothy 3:14-15 (NIV)
Someone sent me a job posting for a minister a couple of weeks ago. No, I’m not looking, but this person thought I might get a kick out of this one.
It’s amazing sometimes to see what churches are looking for when they’re in a search. Some of the posts I’ve seen — well, I don’t think Jesus himself, Paul, and all of the twelve apostles together would be qualified to fill some of those positions.
This post wasn’t like that, though. This one wasn’t too unreasonable as to qualifications. They wanted him to be hard-working and “special.” The first ought to be expected. The second? Well, I imagine they have an idea of what “special” means, developed from years of positive and negative experiences with ministers.
What really caught my eye in this case, actually, was the way the church described themselves: “Loving but stubborn and conservative.”
I like their honesty, I’ll give them that.
Most churches are. “Loving but stubborn and conservative,” I mean.
Most churches, the vast majority, know that for Christians love is probably the most important value, and that if you miss on love not much else matters — sounding gong and clanging cymbal, and all that. Most churches consider themselves loving. And in most churches, if you ask the people who have been around a long time if they feel loved by their church, they’ll definitely say they do. Of course so. If not, why would they have been around so long?
In a lot of churches, though — maybe most? — the people who haven’t been around so long might not answer in the affirmative. Ditto for the folks who are maybe a little different, who don’t quite fit in with others at church so easily. Those who don’t show up for all the services don’t always feel too loved, and it’s easy for elders and ministers and others who lead the church to dismiss that as their fault. “If they’d show up more, they’d feel more loved.” That might be, but it might also make someone wonder why they ought to put themselves out there if they can’t quite reach the attendance threshold required for full inclusion.
I think most churches know the value of love. I think most are trying to show love. It’s usually in the execution of it that something goes wrong, at least for some folks. Maybe it gets shoved into the background, behind all the worship services, ministry, and evangelism we’re trying to do. Let’s be sure that we don’t overlook love. Otherwise, our churches will be places filled with noise and activity, but nothing of real lasting value. It’s love, after all, that makes what we do profitable.
In addition to being loving, most churches are stubborn. I’m not really talking about individuals here, though there are some stubborn individuals in most churches. What I’m saying is that churches are stubborn collectively. Churches are hard to move. Their rudders are more than a little sluggish. They aren’t capable of — nor interested in — quick course corrections.
Speaking as a minister, I can tell you that a lot of us wouldn’t want to go to a church that characterized themselves as “stubborn.” That’s because most of us start off, at least, thinking our ideas are the best ones, our plans are the ones that will help the church grow, and that our vision should be the one to lead the church forward.
God save us from ministers with plans and vision.
I’m kidding, but only a little.
Whether or not a church being stubborn or not is a good thing or a bad thing depends, as it does with individuals, on what they’re stubborn about. There are words for people who think they’ve discovered something truly new about Christianity — heretic, apostate. I don’t mean, of course, that sometimes things can’t be forgotten and rediscovered. That rediscovery is a necessary part of the life of the church, and the Spirit uses it from time to time — probably constantly — to renew and revive the church. But there are things about which the church has to be stubborn or we lose our identity and our purpose. Paul refers to the church in First Timothy as “the pillar and foundation (or bulwark) of the truth.” He expected that we will stubbornly hold to a standard of conduct that will support and defend the truth of Jesus’ coming.
Of course, that stubbornness won’t always stay in its lane, will it? Once you’ve started being stubborn about some things, it can be really easy and feel really good to be stubborn about everything.
Most churches are conservative. Not politically or theologically conservative, of course — there are churches all over the spectrum there. One definition of “conservative” is “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation,” and that describes the mindset of most churches. We do what we’ve always done for a reason, and if we’re going to change there ought to be a really good reason.
That sounds right, but there’s an assumption there: that things should never change unless there’s compelling evidence what we try will be better. That’s an impossible standard. It doesn’t allow much room for experimentation. It doesn’t leave space to try something new, just to see if it’s better or more effective or more helpful or even more biblical than the way things have always been.
When that conservatism and stubbornness is applied — as if often is — to the way a church understands Scripture, then it’s very easy for conservatism to take on the sheen of orthodoxy, of “sound doctrine.” We do things the way we’ve always done them because “the Bible clearly says….” We lose sight of the fact that our forebears may have built their biblical case to match the practices and values we have adopted, and not the other way around. We should ask ourselves sometimes if we do what we do because the Bible says we must, or if we read the Bible the way we read it because that’s how we find support for the things we’ve already decided to do.
And how might our stubbornness and conservativeness alienate the very people we should be loving?
Loving, stubborn, and conservative. All important, but in the right measure, in the correct circumstances, and with the right emphasis.
That’s how we’ll do our job as the church.