Church Structure – Guide for New Christians
The launch of Church of Philadelphia .net!
American Ideals vs. Christian Ideals, Resolving the Incongruity http://churchofphiladelphia.net/Churches1.mp3
Guide for New Christians – Early Church Model http://churchofphiladelphia.net/NewChristianChurch1.mp3
Guide for New Christians – 5 Points: Authority Structure, Discipline, Membership, Prejudices, Traditions http://churchofphiladelphia.net/NewChristianChurch2.mp3
It is so easy to brainwash new Christians. Let’s face it, you are probably going to have to fall into, and eventually fall out of, a couple of Christian cults or just plain old bad churches before you start to think for yourself about just what Christianity was really meant to be. Until you see the corruption for yourself, until you experience the Holy Spirit leading you away from something bad yourself, you aren’t going to get it. And let’s face it, it plain old takes time as a new Christian to come to hear Him loud enough that He is louder than the people around you and what they are telling you.
The fact is that it’s a world of shades of grey. It’s pretty clear and easy to understand that as a new Christian, a baby, you need the Word of God and the fellowship of other more mature believers. And you need that more than a perfect church model that is free from abuse of authority, incorrect doctrine, prejudice, hypocrisy, or flawed leadership that’s more worldly or monetarily focused than they should be. I think perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that early on gets made by young Christians is to think that when the Holy Spirit leads you on into a church, that it means that church has His seal of perfection stamped to it like some inviolate unchanging eternal commendation. Not so. Similarly, I see young Christians take a word from the Holy Spirit, that goes along with some of their preconceived notions, to be a cart blanche affirmation of everything they already believe tied to or along those lines. Also not so. The Holy Spirit speaks truth and guides us into all truth – but perfection through sanctification is a process happening a piece at a time over a lifetime. Eventually you come to understand to “not add to His Words, nor take away”, afterwards when you understand this, that is when you realize that it’s not so simple. He meets you where you are at in your understanding at the time – and change and growth are expected to be part of the process.
Like it or not, but the Holy Spirit might lead you into less than ideal situations, first because it is a less than ideal world, second because in your own stubbornness it may be the only place you will go, and it’s better for you than if He doesn’t lead you there. And where you change, and there’s growth, suddenly new better options may usually be better for you than where you started. Not always, but sometimes. It depends how, when, and where, you started. And it’s sometimes your job to take the place where you started and let it go, having changed and grown in your experience, taking your place and job in the body onto new horizons with His leading. Imagine if when the Holy Spirit told Philip to go into the desert (to, surprise, meet the eunuch) if Philip had imagined he should stay there in the desert from then on. But no, then the Holy Spirit carried him away to Caesarea (Acts 8). Or what if Paul had got the idea stuck in his head that he should just stay in Ephesus, or Corinth, etc. instead of moving on? Sometimes your job for the Lord means carrying onto someplace new that He is taking you. And sometimes your job means staying in the same place. But just like Philip or Paul, just because God has called you to a place of worship, a church fellowship, even clearly, it does not mean that afterwards you have to stay there. If you eventually start to see corruption or flaws in that place, it may be He will call you out to someplace better for you, where your tasks, job, gifts can be realized for his purposes – in ways beyond what you ever eventually will have take place, if you stay.
What is wrong is a stubborn refusal to take further instructions from the Holy Spirit when He leads you onto a new place and task, furthering your calling, because you have become attached – or worse – you have let the voices of the people around you that you have become comfortable with drown out His voice. Not to be condemning about it though – we all usually have a tendency to do this, especially young Christians. But the admonishment of Lord Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, is to love not your life even unto death. Even Christians living out their walk, in the world but not of it, can become stagnated by preferring a comfortable life (where they stay in a church they have outgrown, or never fit in the first place) rather than leaving to fulfill their calling and purpose. Why? Because it is comfortable, familiar, and they have the status of longevity there, or have built a good reputation or name. But honestly – any church where you will lose all that if you don’t stay there – is not a healthy church to begin with. Any church where you only keep love in a relationship with the people if you stay there, is a series of shallow relationships indeed, and weak love perhaps ingenuine or not but simply weak and partial.
In a Christian world full of brothers and sisters the world over spread out over millions? of churches, where you stay and whether you stay in a church should not be allowed to determine sincere love, appreciation, respect, or status of a brother or sister. Loyalty is not to be determined by the invisible boundaries that separate one church from another, one denomination to eachother – but by what is right and what love is in a commitment to obedience to God’s commandments, and ultimately loyalty to Him. Real love is unconditional and doesn’t revolve around status or position – so unconditional love cannot be based on the condition of whether you stay in a place you have outgrown or where the Holy Spirit does not want you to stay for whatever reason. We could all agree that, on the other hand, “love remains” and so staying put can be out of determination to show love to those you yourself have grown to sincerely love. But afterwards, if you stay where God doesn’t want you, then it could also be said “He who loves brother or sister more than me is not worthy of me”. You may remain to show love to brothers or sisters, but you cannot let that determination to show love through remaining with them outweigh showing God your love for Him by making Him the first priority – if and when He would call you to not stay, but go where He has a place for you. It might seems these are never simple decisions – but when you seek first His kingdom and Righteousness and are in close relationship with Him to hear His voice – it can be as simple as following His voice and leading.
Add to that the component that God’s voice may not be the only voice you will ever hear – usually we all suffer from temptations from the demonic and the flesh, even without realizing it. As Christian, we are living out a spiritual warfare lifestyle, or we are in denial of the world we live in – because we are living in a battlefield of darkness against light, the forces of the enemy are at war against us as Christians – the precious children of God that He loves. Only by drawing near to God and submitting to Him, resisting the devil, do we have protection – and too often we slip and make mistakes and are drawn further away than we should go. We can be deceived, and so we must try to submit and draw near to God, to walk a straight and narrow, to seek relationship with Him who usually keeps us under His protection. When He does not, it is often because we have drawn near enough to the enemy for him to take a swipe at us, somehow. But God is greater still, for even with our mistakes and in our weakness, God’s Grace is sufficient for us, and His predestination for us draws from long before we existed, before time began, for He foreknew all our mistakes and lets us make them, foreknowing a better way still for us, as part of His eternal plan that has, does, and continues to encompass our lives, despite our mistakes, from before He created the world and time began. We are safe and saved, encompassed in His love in this temporal life – even making mistakes. But the admonishment is to test the spirits and be safe, hear His voice and take action, but learning to not follow another’s.
Still the voice of another can be those around us, people we know, who themselves may not be as in touch with the Holy Spirit about our lives as we can be, in closer relationship to Him about ourselves. He knows our hearts and stays inside us there, where other people do not know us so intimately. We are flawed and imperfect, all of us, brothers and sisters included – and so as we need to test the spirits to be clear we hear His voice, we also may need to test the voices of people around us. Uniformity or consensus of opinion does not always agree with reality – as makes plain sense – common sense – and as history shows us the failings of – many people can be deceived and blinded, and we should not stay under their opinions if they are so blinded – ignorant or innocent of what we can easily see but they cannot seem to understand or fathom. What a difficult world it is sometimes, to discern between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies, when we may find ourselves surrounded by ignorance, not even of our enemies – but with far more potency and affect – the ignorance of our friends.It is emotional bonds with people we love and whose opinions we look to for guidance who have the greatest potential to drown out the Holy Spirit’s leading and voice in fulfilling our callings and purposes. Nothing can so greatly influence you, en total, as peer pressure from those who you seek to have the approval of and have shared experiences with over years. The closer you draw, and the longer the years under your belt together, the greater the chances you will potentially face the problem of stagnating from becoming settled in with those you love. It would be great if change and growth was always furthered by those people we rely on for guidance, but unfortunately trends and changes often depend upon a larger structure of a status quo which seems unchangeable and unalterable, within a church system. Such is the case with denominations, and the various types of authority structure systems in place throughout Christianity. Depending on the church and denominations beliefs, theology, and doctrine you may be stagnated from growth, learning, pursuing a calling, maturing, learning, involvement… from gifts of Spirit, to theological advancements or discoveries, to gender issues, all sorts of things – we must face challenges of the distinct conflict that can occur inside between God’s Holy Spirit’s perfect will for us, and the flawed imperfect church systems around us. We are born into a system that is flawed, and have to learn to make the best of it.
Some churches are rigid in their practices, doctrines, beliefs, and ways of involvement – and rather than the church being a fluid breathing organism that changes with the needs of it’s members – instead the members are pushed to conform to a cookie-cutter model of who they should be to match the church model of a Christian. Rather than the church changing with it’s members, or being composed of it’s members’ desires, thoughts, wishes, callings, leadings as so led by God through personal relationships – instead the church determines what is God’s will and expects members to conform to it. And usually, almost universally, there are members and there are clergy (name your pick – bishops, pastors, elders, deacons, the pope, cardinals, the prophet or apostle, even the founder or lead personality of a “home church”, etc. etc.) and it is the clergy who have authority, power, perhaps founded the church, etc. who determine that model the members should conform to – without freedom past a certain point to go against it. And when you look around it seems like it’s the same everywhere. But is it?
Somewhere under the radar there are movements, individual churches pushing towards more freedom and a different structure – something where no one is really in charge so much – somewhere that the church remains more a fluid living breathing organism able to change and grow as it’s member change and learn, grow and mature. You might see a small house church where people are all peers. Or I even have seen a church which functioned as a democracy, in which elders who made decisions were voted for on rotation, like the house of representatives – they functioned like a republic of servant leaders. Even this though, still remained under some bounds, of defined doctrines which perhaps were correct or perhaps were flawed. There are churches like this, but unfortunately you may not have heard much about them, because people don’t like to change their churches and establishments People in power usually don;t want to change the church structure system itself, or people getting ideas. There are many ways to do a church structure – and if you aren’t hearing about churches in which power changes hands occasionally though the people voting like in a republic – it’s not because it isn’t happening in many independent churches. It’s because you aren’t hearing about it. Not all churches do these things the same way. Even many baptist churches vote in an elder/deacon board, or have some way that the congregation is represented, giving some oversight to the pastor. This is in contrast to pastor-monarchy churches in which there is little oversight, and the power the pastor has over the congregation mimics that of the Pope over the Catholic church. There are also independent churches in which there are multiple pastors or elders which each have equal say and power in the establishment, and serving as peers, the lead “Sr.” teaching pastor does not hold more authority than his (or her) peers when it comes to making decisions. Believe it or not, there are even independent churches in which the elders/pastors are volunteers and do not receive a salary, but they have jobs, and so do not rely on “tithes and offering” for their income. All of this is possible, and it exists out there. I have already seen it here and there.
The question is, why aren’t you hearing about it? And the next question is – does it make a difference? Should it matter to you? Yes. All churches are not created equal – but all people are – and a church structure that through a democratic republic process allows for self-governance – by the people, for the people – is truly what I believe the early church system was – incorporating giftings of the Holy Spirit, leaving decisions up to Jesus Christ as the Head, working through the Holy Spirit, of course. It is superior to a pastor-monarchy system of power.I think that the early church as was founded by Jesus Christ was meant to function more as a republic under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus chose 12 apostles – and later under them were 7 deacons. The apostles went out and did evangelism and started up, lit the fire, of new Christians being born all over the area. A single apostle would then raise up the new church, finding qualified Christians with gifts of leadership and administration who would present themselves. The apostle would teach, until there were some mature believers who were qualified to be elders. Then the people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit would vote for qualified leaders. Then the apostle would “anoint” or “ordain” these elected elders into that position – with consent of the people who voted for them. There were multiple elders who administrated, and their task included facilitating each of the people to function, under the giftings and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in each of their capacities in the church. The elders also were responsible, as pastors, to keep the church sticking to the correct doctrine the apostle had taught them. They had the best understanding of doctrine – because Jesus Christ had Himself taught the early apostles directly. They weren’t relying on guesswork or trying to restore correct understanding. Then the church-planting apostle would either leave and go plant another church, or occupy a peer-position with the mature elders who had been elected by the people. And similarly, deacons were also chosen by the people, then ordained by elders or deacons with the laying on of hands. Once elders were elected, ordained, and in position they had equal position with apostles in the limited capacity of administrating the church, sticking to correct doctrine, making decisions – but being elected this was by the people and for the people with their consent. And the key structure difference beyond the nature of a republic – was that the job of the elders to administrate was to make sure that all the positions and giftings of the Holy Spirit were functioning. The elders were responsible for these positions and people being allowed and able to function, and in an orderly manner: First are apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. They were to oversee and facilitate for the people functioning as a body, each with their gifting(s) in the Holy Spirit, working cooperatively together – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – working through the Gift of Administrations in the elders. Like a mediator, like a representative in a republic, the elders were meant to serve and facilitate the people, who each had a gifting of the Holy Spirit, which was meant to contribute freely into the body. They were elected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not to tell people what to do, but to serve the people who elected them, by administrating the church structure under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. So church-planters could be sent out and supported, so prophets could prophesy, so teachers could teach, miracles workers had a place, so each gifting had a place and could be used as the Holy Spirit gave guidance – the elders were to administrate the people as to allow this to function well. They were serving the people, who elected them into power, to function in the capacity of overseeing the people’s actions as led by the guidance of the Holy Spirit – and not to control the people. The people were not giving over their power to a select few, but rather the elders knew their power to make decisions was given to them in a limited capacity (with limitations) by consent of the people.
Compare that to a modern pastor-monarchy church system in which a few teach every week, usually the founders or those hand-picked by them, and the people sit and listen or sing, give them money, and there is little contribution allowed by the congregation, little to no decision making power is in their hands, and it is a black and white, night and day difference that bares little resemblance to what I believe the early church practiced. The early church was like a democratic republic, in which the elders were representing the interests of the people who elected them, qualified, into ordination and Service. Their decisions were representing the people, not making decisions over the people, lording their power over them. Their power derived from consent of the people, who voted for them to be ordained – and not from claiming authority from God over the people, and claiming authority without the people’s consent, voice, and choice. This is vastly different from many or most churches today – in which the pastor reigns supreme, and you have little to no power within the system. It comes as-is, and you can take it or leave it.
Essentially your choice often seems to be just a matter of which monarch-pastor (or oligarchy a pastor has appointed along with himself) that you wish to choose from. Which monarch with his cabinet do you like better? This one, or that one down the road? And it seems this way because it seems like this is what everyone does, and since it’s the same everywhere, what other choice do you have. And I think that is the first Lie that needs to be addressed to Christians out there: it is a lie that all churches are this way. The truth is that there are churches who practice some level of democratic republic process, there are churches who have multiple elders elected with equal peer decision-making power, and there are churches in which the multiple elected pastors have a day job as well. These independent churches Do Exist – they are more rare – but it is just a matter of finding them.
And because they DO exist – or CAN exist – that means you do have a choice. Does it matter what you choose? Yes. Because if the early church practiced a democratic republic sort of model, where people contributed each in their roles and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in accordance with their giftings, and everyone had a place, and elders facilitated each having a place to participate under the Holy Spirit’s guidance – then a church like that is what was intended by God. If there is a right way of doing it, then you likely are going to find a healthier better church the closer a church comes to that church structure system or model. Not invariably, but generally speaking. And if elected representatives is God’s model for the church, then by default, many churches out there in which the leadership do not derive their power from consent of the people – are all doing it wrong.
When did the modern system start of a single or a few pastors starting and then running a church begin, without elections, without consent of the governed? The Roman Catholic church or what existed just prior to it’s development. Originally the people voted for qualified elders, but at some point this changed so that elders started handpicking other elders, and started leaving the congregation out of the picture. The people no longer voted the elders in, but instead the elders chose their successors. And that system became the Roman Catholic Church, which has 1 man in power at the top, and an aristocracy of clergy. And the church, despite the Protestant Reformation, has never really recovered – still putting too much power on one man or a few people, still not really reaching the goal of back to the contribution of the congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and consent of the governed, of the early church. Really, most importantly, many churches, protestant, independent, charismatic have all continued to hold power in the hands of a few, following the same example as the flawed Catholic model, in agreement with Catholicism, despite protesting they are different.
So because there is an ideal, there are some churches that come closer to it than others. I know for many years I thought all churches were alike, and couldn’t see how one was really any different than another. When you get stuck in a rut like that (yes, stuck in a rut) because you have believed that 1 lie that all churches are the same and imperfect, and none per se more than the others, cause there’s no real ideal to have as an aim or goal… then what difference does it make? Especially when you see that all Bible-believing evangelical churches seem to be a choice of one monarch or another, then what choice is different than the others? When it all seems to be the same difference, your parameters for picking and choosing the best church forego being critical of the larger church structure itself, and move on to lesser facets such as enjoying the worship, identifying with the pastor, agreeing with the theology, or simply finding the people there to be nice. (And of course for those Christians who were raised in church, they were raised in the system they grew up with, without a choice, and so are even less likely to use critical thinking about the larger church structure itself.) And those parameters are fine and normal – but when you shift the paradigm to realize God’s intention was a republic – and when you look then at the choices of a a monarch oligarchy structure, few founding leaders staying in power without elections, voting, or consent of the people – then you can see most churches are broke away from God’s model. Broke deeply in ways that are so far from God’s aim and intention for the church model, that it’s a night and day difference. It’s the same difference as between a monarchy/oligarchy and a democracy/republic.
Monarchies do not turn into republics overnight, short of revolutions (often violent), or perhaps if a monarch changes the way everything works so as to relinquish his power and to abnegate his throne. A monarchy is not a republic, no matter how nice a monarch may be, or how much he seeks the views of the congregation. Authority is either derived from the consent of the masses through them willingly giving their power and authority over to an elected representative they have voted for, power limited in capacity by their consent… or in this case of a religious monarchy – the claim of authority is derived by claiming God has ordained the monarch with this authority, however, or for whatever reason. It’s a black and white difference. And either the early church was a democratic republic sort of entity, under the guidance of Jesus Christ through the giftings and working of the Holy Spirit – or it was a case of Jesus Christ operating through an anointed few leaders while the rest sat back and followed these few. Looking at the New Testament, I think it is Obvious that Jesus Christ set 12 apostles in motion, so as to be clear that power was to be in the hands of many people representing him and not a few. The scriptures are clear that the people chose deacons from among themselves.
“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch” Acts 6:3-5
It is also clear that there were qualifications for elders and deacons, and every reason to believe the people, the whole multitude, continued to choose and elect their own qualifying elders and deacons. Who was a teacher, prophet, or apostle was not determined by who was elected to administrate, because administration or leadership are gifts listed in their own right. It was the role of those in the position of elder to administrate new apostles going out to evangelize and plant churches, prophets prophesying, teachers teaching, miracle workers working, healers healing, tongues spoken and interpreted – to facilitate and allow for each part of the body to have a place and be functioning as part of the whole – as well as keeping to correct doctrine as it had been handed down. They served as overseers by election, but also might be teachers, prophets, or apostles themselves – or an elder might just have the gift of administration, or a gift of tongues or helps as a secondary gift. But they were elected to facilitate the congregation acting as a whole, each part of the body, under the guidance, giftings, and callings of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ remained the head of the Body, His Church, not any 1 elder, pastor, or even the multiple elders that were chosen by the people then. The people functioned with their guidance, but also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in His giftings and callings as of importance, with elders facilitating this – not having been given the right by the consent of the people to preclude or forbid it – rather they were elected to facilitate the place and functioning of each one in the body. A living breathing body under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the people and for the people, with each having rights as the other members of the body, to function as God called each of them to – each kings and priests, brothers and sisters, calling no one “father” or “teacher” or “master” but the Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another as peers each with different responsibilities and callings and skills, but obeying the voice of the Holy Spirit as sumpreme – and not obeying any man as a pastor claiming sole authority of God ordained as authority over their peers, their own brothers and sisters.
When you start looking at the church structure systems in place today, and pastors today, in light of the early church, many flaws become apparent. No, guidance of the Holy Spirit does not reign supreme over the voice of the pastor. If he is wrong, the choice before you is usually “my way or the highway” and that’s all it may take to place you outside of a church, having to start over somewhere else. Why? Because whose church is it really? Is it the church of the Body of Christ, the people, with Jesus Christ as the Head of that Body, living by the Holy Spirit working through everyone? Or is that the church of Pastor so-and-so?
Considering where we started, my point is that you DO have a choice, and churches do exist which more closely follow a true biblical model of a democratic/republic system. Your choice is not limited to “this monarchy/oligarchy” or “that monarchy/oligarchy”. You do have the choice between picking a church in which you can vote for your leadership by your consent, or a monarchy. Which church you pick to attend is your vote for which system of church structure is winning out in society at large.
Do you want the world to be populated with monarch/oligarchy-churches in which a few hold power over the congregations, which are passive and have little contribution or say?
Or do you want the world to be populated with churches that are self-governing, with consent of the people, electing their leaders, thinking on the biblical qualifications themselves, free to choose, free to change the church from within, free to grow and mature the living church along with it’s members?
Do you want a church that you just attend? Or do you want a church that you help to build and are a piece of it that has a voice?
If you decide that you want a church in which you reserve your rights to give consent to those who hold positions of limited capacity power over you towards a purpose you agree with, while honoring your independent relationship with the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ as your direct ultimate Lord – without any person coming in between you and Him – congratulations! You are a heck of a lot better off than if you don’t, and decide you want those in authority over you to claim that position of knowing better than you do and being able to supercede your direct relationship with the Holy Spirit through their own mystical claim of ordination from God over other people.
So if that is the case that you think a democratic/republic church is better – than you have the power and the choice to stop supporting the monarch/oligarch model by refusing to participate with it. Stop going along with it and allowing these monarch/oligarch type of churches to receive your support. If you see the error in this, then find a church that has representatives as leadership. Or if you can’t, then at least use discernment and Stop allowing yourself to believe the lie that all church structure systems are monarch/oligarch and so it doesn’t matter what church you pick to attend. Find a church to attend that is the closest you can find to a democratic/republic sort of attitude or functioning, where positions are of service and not of power or authority, and/or where there is some level of voting and election of leadership, or the congregation has a say in their own church. If you know it is wrong, then stop allowing yourself to go along with the monarch/oligarch system of no representation.
You are a part of the body, who Jesus Christ works through, same as your peers – equal brothers and sisters – and no one has a right to claim authority over you that is supreme over your direct relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. A church structure system that allows for a pastor or someone else to stand in between, and does not let you choose to willingly have leadership that represents your personal rights and interests, is hardly a church at all. You were meant to participate, contribute, and be treated as equal and peer to your brothers and sisters – each under direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Not to have someone else claim authority from God and present themselves as claiming authority over you – especially denying you or others ways to contribute and participate as God has called you to do. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – don’t participate and go along with something you know is false, if not for your own sake, then for those who have less power to think and see this clearly for what it is. There IS a better option and it is likely within your grasp, one way or another. You Can be the one who takes a stand and encourages others to find something better, rather than frustrating yourself by sticking with an authority structure system that is restrictive and flawed.
Part 2: New Christians: Picking and Choosing
They say, “there are no perfect churches”. While my experience is limited, I have had 9 years of looking for the perfect church and not finding one, as experience to speak from. Let’s say you don’t have a perfect church down the road either – I want to offer some thoughts on discernment when looking for a church – speaking to new Christians or old.
1. Authority Structure
The more a church has a democratic/republic model of servant leadership, the better. The more it follows an authoritarian structure of self-appointed founder leadership, the worse. You might think whether a church model is authoritarian or servant-leadership focused is a separate issue than if the church is a republic with elections, vs. a monarchy/oligarchy of self-appointed leaders. It’s really not a separate issue. When push comes to shove, if (or when) things get nasty, it all comes down not to what a leader chooses to do right, but what a leader has a right to choose to do. If the leaders have the right to kick someone out over a disagreement, if the leaders have no impartial oversight on them to hold them accountable if they do wrong, if the leaders can make and break their own rules without accountability, if the system allows for wrongs to be kept secret, if decisions all rest on the opinion of 1 or a handful of (pretty much) untouchable people in power – then eventually if/when things get nasty, whether it’s towards you or someone else – you will see there is no difference.
A church set up with a flawed power structure, which Allows for authoritarian control, functions sitting on the brink of imminent disaster, just waiting for a flawed imperfect person, like yourself, to make some poor choices, and before you know it the entire church has gone the downward spiral into an unhealthy authoritarian spiritually abusive Christian cult, or even a full-blown plain old cult.
Check and balances of power ensure that a church will not become some sort of unhealthy authoritarian monster in your life in a couple years time. Without those checks and balances of power on the leadership – accountability, consent of the people, limited authority to make decisions – that monster is just looming over the horizon, it’s just a matter of how and when. An intelligent church that has learned from history “absolute power corrupts absolutely” has already taken measures to prevent such a downfall, by putting into place an authority structure that does not allow for a person or a few people to hold absolute power, nor make whatever decisions they want without accountability.
2. Discipline – Starting at the top
Here’s a key question: If someone in church leadership wrongs you, can you go to someone in the church who will impartially investigate and address the matter? Scandal after scandal of church leadership abusing members physically, psychologically, sexually, exploiting them financially, small grievances up to large criminal activities: covered up. Why? Because in some (not all) churches there is no-one who holds the leadership accountable. Who holds the pastor to account if he or she sins? Who can you report something to within the church? Is there any sort of impartial board who you can take a grievance to about the church leadership? Is this information given freely so you are aware of who gives oversight to the leadership, or is it a secret? There should be accountability on the church leadership, same as on people in the congregation. The leadership needs accountability because they are just Christians, who should not be treated as above the same rules everyone else follows – and if they sin against anyone there should be ways for this to be addressed impartially by someone, with fairness, and someone you can tell about it. The more you see the leadership is held accountable by the same standards as everyone else, and the congregation has means of redress, the better. The more you see leadership who is above the standards set for others, above the rules, without any real accountability, the worse.
Then there’s the issue of discipline of member of the church – who handles it if one sins against another? How does the leadership handle problems and discipline between members? Is there any manner in which Matt 18 can be implemented, and who has the job of handling Matt 18 sorts of situations? If another church member steals from you, and you talk to the pastor, will anything happen to discipline him? What if another church member molests your child, or commits adultery with your wife (some extreme examples for sure – but what if?) will the church take any action, what requirement of proof do they need to take action, or will they do nothing at all? A biblical church needs to have a place for Matt 18 to be implemented, with fairness, clear thinking, with love, without partiality, and with the church leadership held to the same standards as anyone else – which should be biblical standards. If or when the time comes within this community you have chosen to invest into, in which you need a grievance redressed, the answer you get should not be “you can’t get there from here”.
I have seen there are extremes either way that you need to watch out for. On one hand there’s the church that does nothing – where your estranged wife and her boyfriend keep attending while the leadership does nothing and you have to bare it. That is wrong. Then there is the other extreme – shunning people, or simply giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment until they leave. There’s a variety of ways this can happen – but usually the result is psychologically detrimental and often spiritually abusive. How a church interprets and implements Matt 18 is important. The church leadership should have balanced sane loving fair rules in place to handle church discipline, using Matt 18 as the standard, which apply universally across the board to leadership also. “Treat others as you want to be treated” should be a highly prioritized standard, as the correct implementation of Matt 18 should not violate the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” and the correct Christian attitude of forgiveness and humility. Even when “discipline” is not warranted between members, church members may also simply have conflicts between each other. If and when people cannot resolve conflicts between themselves, there should be ways that the church helps to resolve problems and conflicts, that facilitates communication, solutions, and resolution of conflicts towards a positive resolution between members.
In the terms of government, a citizen has rights and responsibilities as a member of that country – even if born into that nation. Exactly along the same lines, a member of a church also had rights and responsibilities. In accordance with the Bible, each and every Christian is a member of the Body of Christ, by born-again birth. And as such, each Christian has rights given by God, and responsibilities set by God, which we see results in much of what we do in working out our own Christian walks towards sanctification. As such, any Christian should be considered a member of the Body of Christ, and any church that represents the Body of Christ, by default. So I am not saying that I think a church needs to have “membership”, where you take a class, sign a paper (often agreeing to tithe) and to agree with certain doctrines and practices, and then you are a member (and/or can vote as a member). I have seen churches set up that way, and it’s sometimes good, or sometimes bad enough you should run for the hills. When they start getting you to sign that you pledge allegiance to the pastor and whatever he thinks goes, there’s more warning signs that comes from membership than benefit.
Nevertheless, you as a Christian are a member of the Body of Christ, and the people of the Christian Church at large are the Body of Christ. The ideal is not that you need “membership” to belong to a church – but rather the ideal is to look for is a church which recognizes that you are a member of the Body of Christ, and as such already have certain rights, and responsibilities. You already Are given rights by God, and have responsibilities as a Christian, and are already accepted in the beloved, the Bride of Christ – and what you want to look for is a church that affirms and protects those rights, helps and facilitates those responsibilities, and accepts you in the Beloved – as per the Bible.
So again, there are extremes to watch out for about membership also.
On one hand you have churches in which there is membership, and rights and responsibilities are realized and understood, even voting – but you have to promise to give them money, follow the leadership, etc. etc. in order to get the church to recognize your right to vote, to recognize you as a member, to allow you freedom to fulfill responsibilities – to give back to you as privileges that which is already your right by born-again birth. The one extreme is churches who recognize members have rights and carry responsibilities, but won’t extend those rights and ability to fulfill responsibilities to all Christians who cross their doors. You can see this in some baptist churches, who require a 2nd baptism “their way” in order to be able to become a member. Or they will not let you teach, serve, etc. until you become a member (though they will usually take your money). Having to sign something pledging money, or making promises, could be considered similar. Jesus Christ said to not make vows, but to let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no”. So if you have a problem with signing a membership form because it requires you to “pledge”, “vow”, “promise”, “swear”, then you are perfectly right to refuse to do so and explain why. You can “agree” to something, letting your “yes be yes”, without taking an oath or making a vow or promise. You are already accepted in the Beloved, and have rights as a member of the Body of Christ. So what you want is a church that recognizes Christians have rights, as members of the Body, and extends those rights to Christians who join them, without having to jump through membership hoops that are unbiblical. You also want a church that will let you fulfill your responsibilities without having to jump through membership hoops that are unbiblical. Once you are saved, Baptism is a biblical public profession of faith as a Christian. Really, more than you having done that should not be required to be accepted as a member in any church that represents the Body of Christ.
On the other hand there are churches in which there is no membership, and no one is recognized to have any rights, or to carry any responsibilities – or simply may be allowed to carry responsibilities without having any rights. The main problem with a church (if you can call it that) that does not recognize members to have rights, is that whether you carry responsibility or not, your stay there may end abruptly by no fault of your own with no explanation. What do I mean? Looking at the prior 2 points, of authority structure and discipline – this is all based around who holds power and how conflict is resolved within a power structure. In a church with no rights for members it is a place where you have no rights to redress wrongs, and no power, and so you do not have to be treated fairly. If you have a right to be treated fairly, then you will also be able to redress a wrong if treated unfairly. Therefore if you have no rights, and there are no member rights extended to anyone, then your right to redress wrongs is nonexistent. You have no power, because you have no rights.
It’s much the same difference between being an employee with a contract or as part of a union, and being an employee with a no-fault termination agreement. Like a contract employee, if you are treated with rights as a member, then if you invest your life into this – and do well – you can’t be fired without cause. But if there are no members or rights of members, then like a no-fault termination agreement – you can invest your life into this – do well – and then get fired for no reason, and have no means of redress. You can do nothing wrong, but someone in church leadership gets upset at you – and you get fired – and there is nothing you can really do about it because you have no rights – and so no rights to a redress of grievances. One day you are being treated well – but the next day you are in disfavor – and you may have been there 5 years, 10 years, but you have no rights as a member, so any problem you have with something – you have no right or ability to have that problem fixed.
A church which has no membership, and does not recognize rights, does not have to treat people with fairness as if the people have rights before God. They might choose to do so, or they might not. You can’t address your rights being violated, like investing 10 years of your life into a place then being booted out the door for no reason, if you have no rights in the first place, to be treated as others would like to be treated. The leadership might say it and teach it, but if they don’t organize the church functioning to reflect it, do they really mean it?
A church that recognizes the rights of the members of the Body of Christ is going to treat people with fairness and more respect, treating others as they want to be treated, because they have an attitude of value and worth of equal respect of their peers. They are going to do what they say, treating others as they want to be treated, by implementing a system of equal and fair peer treatment. They cannot get fired for no reason, and can have their wrongs redressed, and so can you, because you all, leadership and congregants, have the rights of being members of the Body of Christ (whether you have church membership or not.) But a church that does not have membership and does not recognize the rights of the attendees before God as members of the Body of Christ – it equates down to an Us vs. Them mentality between those who have some established power in the church and those who do not yet. Not everyone is equal by default – because no one has rights. Equality is only gained by pursuing the approval of whoever has power, respect, etc. in the church already. Thus things become partial and determined by favoritism and approval of those who already hold power. The church Body of Christ was Never meant to function in such a way that the only way you get treated with rights and respect, and the right to redress wrongs done against you, is by earning partiality or favoritism or respect or worth through becoming one of “Us” instead of one of “Them”. But rather, “We believe this truth to be BIBLICAL that all Christians are equally endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights within the Body of Christ…”
4. Love vs. Prejudice
A sure-fire way to get involved in a bad thing is to see prejudicial treatment of minorities spoken of or practiced, and ignore it. Whether it’s prejudice against women, black people, white people, asian people, arabs, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, the demonically oppressed, the homeless, the poor, the rich, or whatever group it might be – do not ignore it. Prejudice is essentially just hatred masked with ignorance, and whatever scriptures may get used to justify it, or other excuses, it is always wrong. If a church is ignorant that prejudice is opposed to love, then that tells you they are ignorant enough to warrant you not sticking around. Especially if you are of that minority group – do not think that you are going to change things – it always hurts to realize you are being discriminated against, and it always is something you want to change – but for your church home it is not worth sticking around to change the minds of people who are indifferent to their ignorance enough to hurt you.
For women especially – if you believe that sticking around a church which tells you that you don’t have equal rights before God doesn’t hurt you, then think again. I have heard the stories over and over, think again. Because you can invest yourself into a church, and play along, and think you are trusted, respected, and of equal worth – but dollar to donuts – when you need help or think something needs to change – you are going to face the reality that you are not considered of equal worth by the men in that church, and you are going to get disrespected, treated with distrust, and betrayed. When push comes to shove and you need help, those people you have trusted and loved are going to disappear and be replaced by cold hard belief systems of prejudice coming out of the people you thought loved you, taking actions like puppets on strings of sexism. Prejudice is the opposite of love, if you ever need action, help, and support you are going to get betrayed.Think of it this way: If you are a black man, you don’t stay in a church where black men can’t be leaders because they are black, “because God said so”. If you are a black woman, you don’t marry a white man whose a KKK member, who thinks black people are lesser than white people and ok to be slaves “because God said so”. And if you are a woman, you don’t stay in a church where women can’t be leaders because they are women, “because God said so”. In all of these cases, when push comes to shove, and you need people, and you are left hurt and betrayed – the sad and final ultimate answer is – what did you expect?
If you belong to a church where women can’t be in leadership “because God said so” then you are being spiritually abused in a mild way – which you might find tolerable or be agreeable to it. But I would guess that the reason most women, or people, stay in churches that are this way is because you have never had push come to shove. When the spiritual abuse of sexism hits home and you need people, and they don’t love you anymore, and you are faced with the monster that prejudice actually is, the hatred it actually is, then you would either change your mind, or go the other way and get seriously spiritually abused to the point of very unhealthy levels and brainwashing. The human soul gets oppressed and cries out in hurt at being abused – and it takes its toll to stay in a place or church or relationship like that – when push comes to shove, and you need people’s help and love, and you get betrayal and hatred instead. That is what prejudice is – opposed to love – where it is – love is not.
5. Traditions – Biblical or Unbiblical?
Some churches develop unbiblical traditions, which are unnecessary and especially are bad if prejudicially based, honoring one group over another, or dividing the body. These are things to watch out for, and can be indicative something is wrong.
On the other hand some traditions, even one which may seen odd, are biblical, harmless, and even can be fun. As a new Christian you might not recognize these for what they are right away, but as you learn the Bible, the Word of God, you can often see where they came from.