Author: Ron Graham
When movers and shakers in the churches see a great need, and have a vision of how that need could be filled, they usually develop a pet project. That’s commendable. However they may find the churches give their pet project the thumbs down. The churches are concerned with the “purity of the church” and are wary of “innovations” and departures from the old paths. That’s equally commendable.
It’s a pity that two commendable things should collide in this way, especially when both goals could be achieved together. Here are seven things to think about. By testing your pet project through these seven principles, you will ensure that your project is likely to receive a blessing not a frown, a thumbs up not a thumbs down.
There should be a "thus saith the Lord" for all the church does. It is the Lord’s church after all. Ask not, "Is it a good thing?" but, "Does the Lord authorise it?" The authority of the scriptures cannot be derived from the silence of the scriptures. Scriptural authority always comes from what the scripture says —either what it states directly, or by inference drawn from what it says.
For more on this, see Is It Scriptural?
God warned Moses, when the tabernacle was in the making, "See that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain" (Hebrews 8:5). In the same way, we must see that we make all things in the church according to the pattern laid down by Christ and his apostles.
Christ said, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18) Jesus built the church for his own purposes and doesn’t expect others to create substitute organisations to do what he designed his church to do. The church of Christ has a monopoly on certain things because it is designed to do them better than man-made organizations.
The New Testament pattern is that the individual disciples in a given locality came together as local churches. It was the church that conducted worship services, preached the gospel, looked after needy saints, and so forth. For instance, there were "churches of Galatia" (Galatians 1:1, 1Corinthians 16:1), but there was no "Galatian Ministries Inc" or "Galatia For Christ Society".
When an organisation other than the Lord’s church draws funds, attendance, expertise, effort, and opportunity away from the church, Christ becomes the head of a skeleton!
[Although I speak passionately about this, I would also exhort us to caution that we do not take the principle to unreasonable lengths. Let’s say a group of motor mechanics, accountants, and bus drivers, get together and form "Bill’s Bible Bus Service" to provide transport infrastructure for a church that runs a large Sunday Bible School. Bill’s mob runs the buses. The church runs the Bible school. That’s sensible.]
The Bible makes it clear that "Christ is the head of the church" (Colossians 1:18). He is the "Chief Shepherd" and under him, in each local church, are the shepherds who oversee the flock (1Peter 5:1-5). This is the scriptural organisational pattern. When people set up organisations alongside of the church, they are differently supervised and controlled. They are a law unto themselves, not under the auspices of the church, and supplanting the rule of Christ which he instituted.
The church has a set of purposes for which it exists. For example, "the church which is the pillar and ground of the truth" (1Timothy 3:15). is responsible for proclaiming and defending the gospel of truth and life. It is not responsible for providing sporting activities, secular education, entertainment, employment, and lots of other good things like that. Other organisations provide those things. Christians might well be involved in such organisations, and run them along Christian principles. But these Christians should not get their hats mixed up.
There may be indeed a symbiosis (living and working together to mutual advantage and encouragement) between the Lord’s church and these other organisations. But when people create hybrid organisations that are partly church and partly something else, the admixture soon turns into a monster.
Innovation (the introduction of something new) and change has always been a problem in the church. The Bible says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). What he put in place was good and does not need to be updated or improved upon. The pattern was perfect, and we need only repeat the pattern not modernise it. The church doesn’t need a new name, or a new message, or a new form of government, or a new agenda. The church needs to "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths where is the good way, and walk in it" (Jeremiah 6:16).
Of course, we are not talking about things like distributing the teaching of Christ by satellites and computers to electronic screens, instead of old fashioned ink on parchment scrolls sent by horseback. We are not talking about changing customs and expedients. We are talking about changing the "marks" of the church --those things (some before mentioned) which Christ gave to the church --its name, message, purpose or agenda, government, ceremonies, morality, and so forth.
Sometimes the thing that one group in the church wants, kind of sets them apart from the rest of the congregation. It encourages them to become a clique. Whilst there are groups in the church with special needs (youth, women, married couples, the elderly, widows/widowers, etc.) there is no reason why activities that support their needs should be conducted so as to become divisive, putting barriers between the group and the rest of the church.
The church is not really supposed to "divvy up" into groups that fence themselves off from each other. When we do look to the needs of a certain group, we should do so in such a way that preserves fellowship between that group and the rest of the church. We should arrange things so that we do not show partiality to one group and leave another group feeling left out. This careful approach is all part of letting "there be no divisions among you" (1Corinthians 1:10-13).
It is possible that various groups in the church might operate in such a way as to assume some special place in the church (beyond a special place in the hearts of other members who want to help and encourage them). In that case, the groups become like the Corinthians. It’s as though they are saying, "I am of the youth, I of the ladies, I of the oldies, I of the young marrieds, and I of the Bible class teachers..." and the church is thus divided. Groups should operate in a way that embraces the rest of the church (and the church should embrace the group).
The church is "neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26-29). Let’s ensure that we design special group activities to encourage rather than detract from that mark of the church we call "unity" (Ephesians 4:3).
Most "pet projects" start relatively small and are innocent of appearance. But what will your pet project be like if and when it catches on and grows a thousandfold? An application of the saying, "A little leaven leavens the whole lump" may be appropriate (Galatians 5:9). Think ahead and ask what great oak might grow from your small acorn. Ask whether that oak will fall somewhere down the line and cause a derailment of the church. Your little leaven, your innocent acorn, your thin end of the wedge... have you considered what it might come to in the future? Will it be good or ill?