Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who Decides What the Church Believes?

Today's question, "Who decides what the church believes?"

Please let me clarify three things. First, we know that the scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, at a most basic level it is God who determines what is true. We should all believe what God believes. However, we are fallen creatures and therefore will not always get it right.

Second, we are all accountable for what we believe as individuals. In particular, this applies to the gospel. I can't believe the truth of the gospel for you, and you can't believe it for me. I imagine we all agree on this.

Third, when I use the word "church" in the above question, I'm referring to local bodies of believers (what some refer to as the local church). My current question focuses on the issue who who should decide what that local church believes. Most local churches have somewhere stated what they believe. Who decides this? Why?

I realize that many churches have simply gone along with their respective denomination's statement of faith. However, the question still applies: Who decides what that local church believes?

My guess is that most people would say that the pastor or pastors should decide. Their reasoning would be that these men have the degrees from institutions of higher learning. Therefore (so the thinking goes), they know the most and therefore should decide what the church believes.

My response to the above logic is that it follows a modern, business world type of mindset and cannot be supported by scripture at all.

So, who decides? Do a small group of people decide what the church believes? I don't see how this can be healthy for the church. We all gain by discussing the scriptures together. If a small group decides, how does this benefit the body?

The worst case scenario for a church has to be when one person (almost always the pastor) makes the decisions about what the church believes. I'm picturing the pastor thinking through these issues, writing down what he thinks, and then telling everyone else what to believe. Frankly, this makes the pastor somewhat Pope-ish.

What is the best option for deciding what the church believes? The best option is for the church to decide what the church believes.

My basis for saying this is that God has made all His children to be priests. We need to act like it. We can all interpret and understand scripture. Peter makes this clear:

I Peter 2:5, "You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (emphasis mine)

I Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."

Keeping this in mind, the church should look together to the scriptures, trying to determine together what the authors meant. We should look to apostolic teaching as our infallible guide.

Acts 2:42, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers."

Some people may object to the church as a whole making these decisions, saying that only those with the gift of teaching should be involved in determining what the church believes. The problem with this objection is that it cannot be supported biblically. In scripture, we see the entire church teaching the entire church.

I Corinthians 14:26, "How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."

Colossians 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."

These verses imply that we can all, as the church, sit down together, pour over the scriptures, and determine together what the church believes. The idea of doing this in community goes right along with two of the key verses about church gatherings in the bible:

Hebrews 10:24-25, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."

In these verses, we see the church stirring one another up to love and good works. They are also exhorting one another. The basis for these actions is the truths found in scripture. They are, then, teaching one another.

It can only be healthy for churches to get together and ask hard questions. These questions should focus on what we should believe and how we should live. They should range from questions such as, "Could Jesus have sinned if he had wanted to?" to questions such as, "How can I best love my enemies?" As we struggle with difficult questions together, it builds everyone up in the faith.

In most of today's churches, these hard questions have already been answered. Either the answers sit on a confession of faith or the pastor(s) has decided what the answers are. The church body may discuss these issues in a small group, but the answers are basically set. Sadly, someone else already decided for the church what it should believe. This cannot be the best option.

Now, if the best option is for the church to decide what the church believes, how might this process work? I've given some thought to this. These are a few humble suggestions:


-The bible must be the basis of what the church believes.

-The Holy Spirit must guide the process.

-Discussions must be bathed in prayer and humility.

-Discussions should be group oriented, with everyone encouraged to speak.

-Discussions must be orderly and edifying.

-An atmosphere of community should be fostered.

-Decisions should be group decisions (not dominated by a single person or a few people).

-The group should as much as possible strive for consensus.


One obvious question in all this is, "What is the role of elders/pastors/overseers?" My answer (which could certainly be flawed), is that elders should strive to not dominate the conversations. However, they should be involved. They must step in if any false teaching ensues (whether on purpose or out of biblical ignorance).


The key to all this is that decisions about what the church believes are most beneficial to the church when they are made in community. When this happens, everyone benefits. This way, everyone knows why the church believes what it believes. Also, people feel much more involved in the process. Everyone is built up in the faith.

I encourage you, regardless of your church situation, to ask hard questions and push humbly for group decision making. This should apply not just to pragmatic decision making, but also to our beliefs about faith and practice.

We all mature in Christ when we ask and answer hard questions together. Don't rely on someone else to do it for you. You are a priest. Get together with other priests, look in the bible, and search for answers together.

10 comments:

Aussie John said...

Eric,

I cannot begin to tell you of the joy these words give me.

I recently wrote, on another blog, "Your article remind me of a couple of visits I made to the USA, a few years ago, to a Baptist church, which in my opinion, was more akin to a Presbaptorthocatholic cult. The Pastor's (note the upper case 'P') word was excathedra, the elders genuflected to him, and the congregation to them.

As I spoke with the members of the congregation, I asked what they thought about certain Scriptures: NOT ONE person had an answer other than, "The Pastor says....)! The same applies regarding their church practice.

I trust that no one I have ever taught will answer questions that way. I want to hear people who have been taught to read the Scriptures for themselves and answer as good Bereans would, being convinced in their own minds about what Scripture says, NOT what the pastor says that it says.

It has been my practice for half a century to tell congregations, "If you believe what I teach, without checking it out for yourselves, you are fools!"

Eric said...

John,

Thank you for your kind words. I only hope I can live out what I have written.

May we all encourage one another by looking to the words of life together.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

Good questions again. How about this one: Who decides what a church believes--the founding members or those who come afterwards? Should agreement with a church's Statement of Beliefs be a requirement for membership?

I notice you say the elders "must step in if any false teaching ensues." I think there is wisdom and balance here, and this seems to be in line with what passages such as Heb. 13:17 and Acts 20:28-29 infer.

But, should there be some leeway for differing opinions on certain points of doctrine? What makes a belief "false teaching" and what makes it merely a difference of opinion?

By the way, I agree with your basic line of thought here. Just trying to tease it out a little further.

Eric said...

David,

Thanks for the comments and additional questions.

As for membership, that is an issue I struggle with. I'm not really sure what biblical membership even is anymore.

As for difference of opinion, I should have addressed that issue in this post. Maybe I will soon. I certainly think there has to be some leeway. Christians would never agree on everything. How much leeway? That is an interesting question.

As for false teaching, I think that has to do with core doctrinal truths such as Christ's divinity, Christ's sacrifice on the cross, etc.

Overall, I would hope it would be O.K. to "agree to disagree" on issues that are not key to the gospel itself. An example might be baptism. We Southern Baptists divide from brothers and sisters in Christ over this issue. I wish this wasn't the case.

I love the thought of a church family struggling through these issues together. It seems that it would only be beneficial (as long as they agreed that they could disagree and remain united at the same time).

David Rogers said...

I read the following post, which deals with a lot of these same issues, the other day. The comment stream is really worth reading through, as well.

By the way, I'm still trying to sort through exactly what I think about some of these questions, as well.

http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/06/how-theologically-diverse-should-your-church-be/

Eric said...

David,

Thanks for the link. I'll take a look at it tomorrow.

Jeffrey said...

When I read something related to God, and his doings, a continuum of red flags, internal shouts of agreement and everything in-between well up in my spirit. This post was way, way over on the "shouting" end of the continuum for me. I would add only one small it of advice from my limited experiences in a home church: don't write down your conclusions;continue to let the Holy Spirit and the scriptures challenge your current understanding.
I have two motivations for this suggestion:
1). When you write it down, it's as if that work is done and mut not be wrestled with again
2). Newer believers/additions to the Body won't get the same privilege of working through the issues. Within a few decades the result would be the same: a framed piece of paper with iron-clad statements with which people must agree.

Sorry for the broken record on this next statement, but I just can't get away from the image of Jesus standing, ...outside the church...wanting to come in. I don't think He wants a seat where He's not allowed to speak through the shoe salesman guy in the Body.

Eric said...

Jeff,

I used to have a favorite confession of faith - the 1689 London Confession. While I still like the document, it does cause problems. As you've said, people tend to not question what is written down, as if a man made confession could be inerrant. We must continue to ask the hard questions, and give new believers the opportunity to do the same.

Nicholas said...

If someone disagrees that everyone should sit down and decide what they want to believe together without writing it down, is their divergent view welcomed as well? Do they have a seat at the table, or do they get ignored and placed in the "traditionalist" category?

If the congregation is going to decide together what they believe, how is it that an elder is going to "step in" when there is "false teaching" or "unbiblical" practices being proposed? If everything is on the table and elders have no authority, why should they be able to say anything about what is/isn't true? You are proposing a model in which a community decides what's true until an elder decides it's unbiblical - completely contradictory to your platform.

Absolutely no one of the several hundred men and women I know that hold to the 1689 LBC believe it to be inerrant and ALL of them have disagreements with at least some of the issues in the confession.

Ironically, you continue to paint with a really, really wide brush in an either/or paradigm. Either we agree with you, or we're unbiblical traditionalists who have more links with catholicism than Christianity. I am tempted to use my wide brush as well and paint you into the emerging church movement... but I know you would deny that, so I want to present things accurately and state your position in a way you would agree. It's the equivalent of saying "Calvinists don't believe in evangelism."

Your caricature of the church is limited to traditional, southern, sourthern baptist churches - MOST churches do not fit your picture, and yet you have placed everyone in the same category. I disagree with some of the same things you do, and our church does not depict a lot of what you say it should because we don't come to the same conclusions as you (using the same Bible - although I know I would be told my conclusions are read through tradition, not sola scriptura). My point is, you want to "agree to disagree", but when someone disagrees they are "wrong", even though you say it's all up for grabs - which is it?

Eric said...

Nick,

On the specific issue of who decides, my answer remains that the body does. I believe this is the most biblical and helpful model. As for elder involvement, they must be part of the conversations taking place. They would be respected members of the church, more mature than most, otherwise they wouldn't be elders. Because of this, the elders would be in a position to step in if false or errant teaching arises (or if the conclusions deviate from scripture). I'm thinking of Acts 20. Although this process may be messy, I think it is the best one.

Regarding written confessions, the problem arises when they are unquestioned. If they are open for discussion and questioning, then that seems like a healthy process.

Regarding church life in general, I'm looking at the bible and then looking at the modern church in the West. What I see in general does not line up. There is a problem with that disconnect. I'm questioning those things and seeing where the answers take me. This can be uncomfortable, but again I think it is healthy.

I'm sure everyone will not share my conclusions. I have no problem with that. I'm not correct all the time. I am excited about the process of questioning the status quo and seeing where that process leads.