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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Myths About Simple Church

In the two years (or more) that my wife and I have been exploring simple church concepts, we have encountered several consistent objections and/or concerned questions about simple church. I'm not just talking about one or two times that these issues come up. I'm talking many times for some of these. Recently, a couple of them have started to surface in comments here, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to address some of the myths about simple church that I have seen.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it may even end up spanning more than one post. For the time being, though, I'm just going to address the few that are on my mind right now, and maybe address more as time goes on.

These are not directed at any one particular person, but are being put out for discussion by any and all who wish to comment. Not every thought that I express in response is necessarily original with me, but I don't necessarily have the ability (due to lack of memory!) to credit the original sources on all of these. They have, however, become my own thoughts as I've lived out some of the responses myself, and as I've wrestled with these myths in my own mind.

Myth No. 1: People who are involved in simple church have been hurt by the institutional church, and are reacting to that hurt by leaving church altogether.

While I will not deny that many of us who are in simple church have been hurt in situations in the past, I must say that my motive for pursuing simple church is not to run away from any particular situation. It may be true for many that a hurtful situation was what prompted the questions they asked themselves about church, but that is not necessarily true of everyone.

For me, the questions came separate from any hurtful situation. I had been hurt several times by abuse of authority in the institutional church, but those hurtful situations had been put to rest long before I considered anything outside the institution.

What led me to look outside the institution was much more related to a frustration with feeling like we were just going through the motions each week (I was in leadership at the time) without making any significant impact in people's lives.

Myth No. 2: Simple Churches are more susceptible to heresy

I will admit that I have no statistical evidence to support my conclusions here, but I have to say that I have yet to run across a simple church that is any more susceptible to heresy than an institutional church. There is a presupposition behind this myth that is very hard to dislodge sometimes. That presupposition is that heresy is hard to come by in a setting where you have an authoritative leader (such as in the institutional church). I don't think history would agree, however. Many times, when heresy is found, it is being taught from the pulpit or the seminary/university lectern. The reason that this is possible is because the model of leadership where one man is at the top is a situation where that one man is usually unable to be adequately questioned on his teaching.

I remember sitting in a church service where the preacher spoke something that was clearly and absolutely contrary to the Word of God. I sat there, stunned by what I had heard, and looking around to see if anyone else was uncomfortable. It seemed that no one else was. I had visions of standing up and yelling, "Heretic!" while ushers scrambled to drag me out. But, instead, I sat glued to my seat. The glue that held me down was fear. The forum offered no freedom to challenge what was being taught, and so the heresy went forth uncorrected.

Contrast that situation with times when things have been spoken in our simple church gatherings that seemed questionable or even contrary to the Word of God. In those situations, I have been able to graciously say, "But in such-and-such a passage, we read this. Wouldn't that be different than what you are saying?"

I frequently reference 1 Corinthians 14 in these discussions, because I believe that Paul has given very clear instructions on what types of activities should be happening when we gather together. And one of those principles spelled out by Paul is the "weighing" of prophecies. I interpret that to mean that when someone speaks, others have the right (the responsibility, even?) to challenge what is spoken if it appears to be in error. The flip side of challenging error is also affirming truth, and I believe this is just as necessary.

I believe that a forum such as that, where others are given the opportunity to speak actually helps prevent heresy, as opposed to promoting heresy. If all have the right to speak, and all have the right to ask questions about what is spoken, heresy can be weeded out very quickly without having any effect. Had I even been successful in speaking to that preacher in private, it would not have changed the fact that hundreds had heard the incorrect word spoken and taken it at face value. This blanket acceptance of what is spoken from the pulpit is, in my experience and opinion, much more common (and much more dangerous) than most would like to think.

Myth No. 3: Simple Churches are dangerous because they are not accountable to anyone

In all actuality, I have rarely come across any institutional church that was truly accountable to anyone. This myth seems to be somewhat of a red herring. It is true that denominational churches are somewhat accountable to their denominational leaders, but I have not seen where that accountability really plays out unless there is some blatant, public, or grievous sin being committed by the pastor. So, even in the institution, churches operate pretty autonomously. This is even more true for non-denominational churches. (When pressed for accountability, leaders of these churches often refer to some organization or leader that is not even locally located. These are generally organizations or leaders who would merely side with the local church leadership in any potential dispute, anyway, so it offers no accountability from the standpoint of the congregation being able to express concerns.)

What is missed in this myth is the understanding that all of us, whether simple or institutional, are accountable to Jesus Christ. He is the true Head of the Church, not a board or pastor or denominational heirarchy. And we have the written Word of God to be a plumbline for accountability.

Myth No. 4: Simple churches do not have biblical leaders

I can't speak for every simple church here, obviously. But, again, in my experience, I have not found a simple church yet who didn't understand the concept of elders. The major difference is that most simple church people understand that the function of the whole body is rather organic, and the guidance of mature believers (elders) happens very naturally as the body grows and matures.

With regard to the position of "pastor", it is true that most simple churches do not hire a person to function as "pastor", but this does not in any way mean that pastors do not function. On the contrary, a lot of people exploring simple church seek to see all gifts (or at least most gifts, if they're cessationists!) function in the body, not just a handful of "elite" gifts.

In other words, simple church sees pastor as just one gift among many which needs to function. And a simple church may have more than one person functioning in a pastoral gifting.

For the simple church model, it's all about function, not an office. If you're shepherding people, you're functioning as a pastor. If you frequently share thoughts from the Word and apply it, you're functioning as a teacher. If you are mature in the faith, and are able to watch over the flock and lead by example, you're functioning as an elder. Etc., etc., etc. The simple church model sees no need to hire someone to do most of the work when the body is fully capable of organically working together to get it all done.

Myth No. 5: Simple church people are "forsaking the assembling"

This myth usually surfaces if a simple church meets sometime other than Sunday morning, or meets less than once a week. However, this is completely a straw man argument. The reality is that neither the frequency of meeting, nor the type of meeting, is specified in this command not to forsake the assembling. This myth assumes that "assembling" is a particular type of gathering, but the text does not support this conclusion. My experience with simple church is that people who truly are seeking this expression of the body of Christ love to gather together, and do so in multiple ways and various schedules. In Acts 2, we read that the believers met together daily. I'm not proposing a daily meeting routine, but I simply want to make the point that by that standard, even the institutional church "forsakes the assembling" for five or six days a week (depending on whether or not they have a midweek service)! Obviously, I'm saying that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think you can see my point.

Simple church adherents are not "lone ranger Christians", but neither do we operate by a "checklist" of certain schedules we must uphold in order not to be "forsaking the assembling". Again, the key word in my mind seems to be "organic". We meet in various ways, at various times, on various schedules -- sometimes quite frequently, sometimes not so frequently. I have been part of simple church gatherings that met weekly, and I have been part of simple church gatherings that met only once or twice a month. But even between those times of gathering, there were various "assemblings" taking place in various places.

These are just five of the myths that come to my mind right now, and I think this is a good place to stop. I hope that, for those of you who are not in a similar situation as mine, these paragraphs will have shed some more light on what is going on in the simple churches. And if you have found yourself believing or repeating any of these myths, I hope this will have shown you another perspective. Any follow-up questions, comments, criticisms, contradictions, etc.?

Until next time,

steve :)

7 comment(s):

Steve -- Good stuff, you have actually dealt with my concerns over the past months, but this is a good synopsis...

Being somewhat between a simple church and an institutional church, I agree with many of your statements -- especially the one dealing with heresy. Most of the heretical teaching seems to come from places where there is a slavish following of a specific leader, rather than a free exchange of ideas.

Also, as a pastor, I know that my interaction with others in the church has helped me grow and look at different perspectives. I find that those who 'allow' no dissension tend to become rigid in their beliefs, and eventually irrelevant (for example, we MUST do things the same way we have always done them)...

By Blogger Ray, at Monday, May 22, 2006 11:23:00 AM  

Steve, thanks for such a great synopsis! I totally agree with every point as being a "myth". Myth #3: "Simple churches are dangerous because they are not accountable to anyone" is really hard to even understand. The whole idea of accountability seems to me as being very misunderstood. The way the line reasoning seems to go is, "Our congregation is accountable to our pastor, who is in turn accountable to the district supervisor, who is in turn accountable to the state office, who is in turn accountable to the national headquarters, who is in turn accountable to the international headquarters, of which everyone is accountable to the president." My question is, "Who is the president/director/CEO accountable to?" It seems to me to deny the need for mutual accountability, and to become a substitute for our ultimate accountability to Jesus as Head of His Church. Accountability to me, seems to imply a level of intimacy. How can you be accountable to someone you don't even know and who doesn't know you?
At this point in my life, Biblical accountability seems to be represented by "submit yourselves one to another". I am accountable to the family of believers in my life, and they are accountable to me. Do we need more than that?

By Blogger Raborn Johnson, at Monday, May 22, 2006 7:11:00 PM  

Ray, thanks for your comments. You missed out on some good discussion last week! ;) Hope you're doing well, brother, and that your eye is healing completely. I keep you in my prayers.

Raborn, I think you've accurately identified the ultimate myth about accountability. Ultimately, it is claimed that someone "at the top" is accountable to God (I've actually been given that explanation when I press for details about who answers to whom), and this begs the question, then, of why the entire "kingdom of priests" is not able to be accountable to God.

True (and very importantly), we are also accountable to fellow believers, and I also believe that elders tend to be respected and recognized as the body functions. But the actual "organizational chart" in the Kingdom is a lot flatter than some would like to think it is!! ;)

(Speaking of which, I was actually handed a printed "org chart" at a church which showed Jesus at the top, the senior pastor right underneath him, the other pastors underneath the senior pastor, then the other ministry area leaders under their respective supervisory pastors. Very interesting...)

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Monday, May 22, 2006 7:35:00 PM  

Just for the record: I didn't leave because I was hurt, but the process of leaving hurt. My wife and I left because after 18 years, we found ourselves in disagreement with one of the basic beliefs of our group--the role of "head" pastor. When I spoke up concerning the shift in belief away from the accepted interpretation, I went from faithful brother andelder to wayward guy who needed help, support and correction for his error.

After five months of meetings, discussions, etc., my wife and I were left with three choices: We either touted the party line in order to be a fully accepted part; remain and be something that didn't fit, at odds with the status quo; or leave. We chose leaving because by this time, the realization that we could be true to scripture and not be officially organized had begun to develop in our hearts and minds.

After a cooling off period, I agreed to visit area churches looking for a church home. This was placed on me by the school board that governed the Christian school, of which I had been principal for 16 years, as a requirement of continued employment. I accepted this in order to finish a three year process of accreditation for the school which would have been lost otherwise. (The accrediting agency due to visit our school the next fall, required that their visit occur without a new administrator in the principal's chair.) None of the church searching produced any results of pulling on my heart.

After nearly two years of being away from organized church, we made the decision that lacking a direct call from the Lord to do otherwise, we had no reason to return.

Thanks for the post, Steve. As usual, you stated yourself very clearly.

By Anonymous ded, at Tuesday, May 23, 2006 6:18:00 AM  

I am uncomfortable with the role of 'head' pastor! :-)

In our structure, I am one of the elder/pastors in the church, and could not fathom being THE MAN. While I am the 'senior' pastor (a title conferred on me by others), I make no unilateral decisions.

While I am not quite a simple church guy like Steve and ded, I understand the concern regarding the head pastor. I came out of a situation where the head pastor was answerable to no one, and went off the deep end, hurting countless people in the process... I was the Associate Pastor in that situation, but under the terms of that particular denomination, I was powerless to step in and try to stop the madness...

So, when we formed our church, I made sure that I was never put in a position of solely having the 'keys' to the place... Some of the people in the church were actually uncomfortable initially with a plurality of leaders (they have never experienced that), but over time they have seen how silly I can be and have thanked me for the structure we have...

By Blogger Ray, at Tuesday, May 23, 2006 10:43:00 AM  

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

I forget who said that, but it seems apropos here.

There have indeed been extreme cases where the "senior pastor" became so firmly entrenched or absolutely controlling that it caused great damage to the church and its members. I would suggest that in this instances, you are looking at something that more closely resembles a cult than a church.

You make a good point about accountability. I believe that within a church, believers are to be accountable to one another in matters of faith and practice.

As far as doctrine vs. heresy, our church has a statement of faith that was discussed and adopted by the members. We are all held to that doctrinal statement. If I, or anyone else preaches or teaches something contrary, we can be called into account.

By Blogger Gordon Cloud, at Tuesday, May 23, 2006 2:48:00 PM  

Got in on this discussion through Gordon and i'm so glad I stopped by. You have naile don the head some very repetitive questions that come up over and over in reference to this kind of alternative church. Personally and in my on experience...meeting in the organic ways you are describing is far more biblical and "safe" than meeting in an institutional setting any day. The believers I know who live this way are active participants in their own Christianity and usually acquire incredible depth and maturity as believers over time which i rarely ever saw in traditional churches. Thank you for sharing so articulately.

By Blogger Jada's Gigi, at Wednesday, May 24, 2006 8:52:00 AM  

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