The Human Element

Part 6 of the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

by Don Enevoldsen

“I think I would enjoy church if it weren’t for the human element,” a friend said to me one day.

I understand the sentiment. During half a century of church life, I’ve seen politics as often as I’ve seen ministry. I’ve dreamed of a church where the ministry really was the highest priority. Of course it’s obvious that some structure is necessary for a church to function, but does it always have to lead to the abuses of human depravity?

From a time long before moving to Los Angeles, I have searched Scripture for instruction concerning how to organize a church. What offices should be appointed? How can selfish ambition be kept in check? How can greed be restrained?

A couple of difficulties have consistently kept my search from reaching a final conclusion. The first is from observation of other church operations. At one extreme is the structure where the senior pastor exercises absolute control. The obvious problem is that he is then not accountable to anyone, and I’ve never seen that work out well.

At the other extreme is the church that is run by a board made up of several elders who all share equal authority. However, as Jesus observed in his illustration of a narrow road that leads to righteousness and a broad way that leads to destruction, having the most votes on a board does not guarantee anything. I’ve seen plenty of examples of tyrannical and ungodly boards.

I’ve seen a wide variety of examples of how a church operates during my life. Too little structure and nothing much happens. Too much restriction and nothing much happens. Usually the churches I have known started with good intentions, but in a desire to keep all the bad aspects of human corruption out, leaders tend to resort to the kind of control methods that inevitably end up in their own corruption, and they drift away from the original calling.

During my years on a large church staff, I saw this in the way home Bible studies were handled. The church had several thousand regular attendees, and many people wanted to have smaller, more intimate study and fellowship groups during the week. The leadership saw a problem in the early attempts to form these groups. On their own initiative, without sanction from the leadership, someone in the congregation invited a few friends over one evening each week and they read and discussed biblical passages.

One problem with small groups is that a person with a strong personality and a personal agenda finds it easy to dominate the discussion. Often those kinds of people can use small groups to gain followers, and eventually lead people away from the church to do their own thing. Innocent members of the congregation can easily be hurt in the process.

After seeing this happen, the leadership decided to take a hand in protecting the people in the church. They banned all home groups. If you wanted to fellowship or study the Bible, you should come to the regular services.

Not everyone liked that idea, however. No matter how much the leaders argued the point, the intimacy of fellowship just wasn’t the same. After enough pressure mounted, it was decided that groups could meet as long as they were led by one of the church’s pastors or elders. This method worked for a while, until an elder started teaching things that the pastor didn’t like. Once again, groups were banned.

Then home groups became the church growth fad of the day. Every church was organizing them under a variety of names—cell groups, church community groups, home groups. So, again bowing to pressure, the pastor decided to organize the groups with a tight control. I was actually put in charge of the project for a time. We appointed pastors and elders to lead groups, announced that people could sign up for groups and we would tell them where they should go, depending mostly on their location. Then we started developing curriculum for the leaders to use so that we would always know exactly what they were teaching.

I didn’t last very long as leader of that project. From the beginning, I found such a level of control completely antagonistic to organic life within a group. At a loss to know how to protect sheep from the ravages of heretical wolves within groups, I struggled with organizing the program until it was completely suspended. Anything outside the leadership’s immediate and complete control was doomed anyway. My foot dragging merely accelerated the process.

Oddly, as I look back on it, I realize that there were two things completely ignored that should have been obvious requirements. First was the recognition that hierarchical control said, more than anything else, that we did not trust the Holy Spirit to build the church. We felt that we had to have our hands in everything instead of allowing life to grow on its own.

Second, the best way to protect people from doctrinal error is to teach truth, live truth, and demonstrate truth in all that we do. Note how many times Paul told Timothy and Titus to set a good example. There was a place for rebuke and correction of those who needed it, but the main emphasis was on leaders living what they preached. The best preparation of congregation members is letting them see how it’s done.

In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul refers to those who “will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” The way to counter this, he told Timothy, was first “point these things out to the brothers” (verses 6 and 11). Second, “train yourself to be godly” (verse 7). Third, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (verse 13), something more important then than now since the majority of the congregation could not read and would not hear the scripture any other way. All of these things were placed on the foundation of setting a good example:

“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

Titus received similar instructions. The emphasis was on the impartation of life through teaching and through example. It was not on controlling every part of the life of members of the congregation. A healthy church, as described in the New Testament, is built primarily on trusting God to work in people’s lives and in setting a good example. The actual organization of the church is not so much a matter of setting up leadership offices and appointing people to them as it is in organizing an atmosphere in which life develops through fellowship and the flow of the gifts of the Spirit.

I think I’ve finally gotten closer to answering my original question from decades ago. What is the biblical structure appropriate for a church organization? The one that works in the community and under the circumstances within which the church functions. There is not a specified template that has to be followed, but if life doesn’t grow, the structure isn’t really working.

This has gotten much easier to understand as I’ve let go of preconceived notions of what the appointed offices of the church should look like. In fact, as I’ve traced the history of church organization from the earliest times, the desire for a hierarchy has proven to be the very thing that has most often restricted the genuine life of the church. This was true for the first several centuries of the church’s existence and as I look around me, nothing seems to have changed. Over the next few weeks, I propose to take a look at the first few centuries of church history to see just how we got to where we are. You might be surprised by what we find.

Next, Part 7: Sitting at the Right Hand

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

The Human Element

8 thoughts on “The Human Element

  • April 20, 2012 at 10:41 am
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    Another great one, Don… It’s really a shame that (in many churches) so much focus is placed on the church itself that the church never really DOES anything. Just programs and shows and meetings and fine-tuning… In the meantime, the world right outside the door is going to hell. Who’s going out and saving the lost, healing the sick, casting out demons, etc.? If someone happens to wander into our organization with these needs, we’ll deal with them, but it’s almost like a side point…

    Not sure what the solution is – I’m not advocating becoming a street preacher (although maybe that’s precisely what I should be advocating! For someone else besides me, I mean) – but I would like to see more equipping of the saints TO DO ACTUAL MINISTRY than just cheer-leading, spoon-feeding, motivational speaking, etc… You know, all the stuff that keeps the organization full and busy, and keeps everyone’s focus on themselves instead of on God and others. Really, what’s the point of it all?? Is the Kingdom of God really being built? Your idea doesn’t seem like a bad one: Less focus on the church and more focus on the Church!

    Looking forward to the history stuff… 🙂

    Reply
    • April 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm
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      The difference between a health church and an unhealthy church is usually a difference in attitude which is hard to define or pin down when you analyze it. Yet the results are as different as night and day. Successful churches don’t “do” ministry. They empower their people to live kingdom of God lives outside of the Sunday services, and remarkable things happen. Shouldn’t it be God who adds to the church? We get so embroiled in getting bodies in the building during services that we forget all about living.

      And you will enjoy the history stuff. The hard part is trimming it down to a level that won’t bore everyone. There’s so much here I could probably keep talking about it for two years. That might be a little too much.

      Reply
  • April 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm
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    Dear Don, Thanks for all the love…Now LORD, you’ve known me a long time. You know me better than I know myself. You know that each day I am growing older and someday may even be very old, so meanwhile please keep me from the habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.

    Release me from trying to straighten out everyone’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody, helpful but not overbearing. I’ve a certain amount of knowledge to share, still it would be very nice to have a few friends who, at the end, recognized and forgave the knowledge I lacked.
    Keep my tongue free from the recital of endless details. Seal my lips on my aches and pains: They increase daily and the need to speak of them becomes almost a compulsion. I ask for grace enough to listen to the retelling of others’ afflictions, and to be helped to endure them with patience.

    Keep me reasonably kind; I’ve never aspired to be a saint, saints must be rather difficult to live with yet, on the other hand, an embittered old person is a constant burden.
    Please give me the ability to see good in unlikely places and talents in unexpected people. And give me the grace to tell them so, dear LORD.*
    God bless always,your friend Leonard Wayne………………..“What is to give light must endure the burning.”

    Reply
  • April 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm
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    Let’s pray that many would read this message and take heart in it. You are taking the shackles off the church. Thanks Don.

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    • April 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm
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      Agreed, Bob. And I know that your heart is to see the One New Man functioning in the church. These are the kinds of shackles that prevent us from really working in true unity. We’ve been limited by the false kind of unity that comes from trying to keep everyone in line. It only looks like unity on the surface, but doesn’t really bring us together in the Spirit in a way that can accomplish God’s purpose. Unleashing the citizens of the kingdom of God is the only way to really get anything done.

      Reply
  • April 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm
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    When I belonged to a large church I would go to congregate meetings and services during the week, with the intent of fellowshipping with other brothers and sisters in Christ. I made friends
    with a couple of people. I asked about their walk with the Lord. I said, “Is this it, is
    this all there is?” I said, “I’m looking for the rubber, where it meets the road.” They said, ” We’ll show you the road. Meet us here in the parking lot Sat. at 3 pm.” When I arrived Sat. afternoon, the first thing they said was that this was not sanctioned by the church and to follow them to the area of 7th Ave., south of Van Buren in Phoenix.

    It was a large empty lot with groups of people from different churches, serving hot dogs and soda
    to the homeless. The person heading the operation had placed a trailer there that opened out on one side. People would preach and sing while the homeless sat in front of the stage on rows of folding chairs. Everyone from the different churches would witness to the throngs that came for the free food.

    It must have been the 3rd or 4th Sat. I attended. I arrived full of the Spirit. I said, “Lord lead me to the most depraved, degenerate in this place.” The Holy Spirit said, “There he is.” I walked up to the guy and his alcohol breath could have knocked over an elephant.

    As I’m witnessing to him he looked at me with eyes as dark as bottomless pits. He said, “I could kill you right now if wanted to.” He pulled a knife out of a sheath from his waistband and put it up to my stomach. I rebuked the devils in him and finished my witnessing. As I was walking away, two important things happened. A woman I did not know from another church said, “I saw the whole thing, Brother. I was praying for you the entire time.” “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, I am there in the midst of them.”Matt. 18:20. The second thing, with my omnipotence, I looked up to the sky and said, “Well LORD, there’s another one going to Hell.”

    The following Sat., upon arriving at the same lot in Phoenix, someone called out my name. It was him. It was the guy I witnessed to. There he was; showered, shaved, clean, on the front row singing and praising God. I stood there in awe, rubbing my eyes in disbelief. I said, “Is that you?” He just smiled. “It is not by our wit or power but by the HOLY SPIRIT.”

    Reply
    • April 20, 2012 at 8:00 pm
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      Thanks for sharing that. What a great testimony. I love the fact that many churches were involved. I wish I saw more of that. I suppose it is significant that the church hadn’t sanctioned that activity. The church where I worked would never have sanctioned it. In fact they would not even participate in multi church functions unless it was one of their conferences and other churches came to them.

      Over the past couple years, I’ve worked with Robert Wolff, who also commented on this post. His ministry, which I recommend you check out, is at awakening1.com. The message the Lord has given Bob centers around the Ephesians 2 portrayal of the One New Man. There it speaks of Jew and Gentile coming together. As Bob has envisioned the concept, it involves believers being empowered to serve at the altar in their own community, joining with other believers, regardless of denomination, to meed the needs around them and touch people’s loves. This so transcends the arbitrary divisions we impose on ourselves. There are some great examples of that happening. Go to the Video page on Bob’s site and watch the video about Sam Gallucci and the Kingdom Center. It’s an amazing example of what can happen to a community when Christians work together to do something.

      Reply
  • November 1, 2017 at 9:27 am
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    Your transparency and honesty suprises me.
    You are not speaking from the top down to us, your audience.
    A long time ago my favorite pastor of all time insisted that anyone who wanted to be in “ministry” started with cleaning the church toilet’s, and picking up trash on the grounds.
    He said the sign of ministering in love is service to others no matter how ignominious or humbling.
    And he pointed to Jesus, always to Jesus as the example of humble service.
    He taught that the spirits of the saints are subject to the spirits of the saints – meaning we all had a voice. There was an “Elder Board” of men whom we had confidence in.
    The Elder Board was a working board, along with the Pastor. They cleaned the church, did the landscaping, and building maintenance. Their wives and the rest of the “active church” willingly took part because we loved God and we loved each other.
    Yes, there were problems.
    However as related to ministry and leadership
    It was a good example for me, and one that I have always treasured and tried to follow in ministry (without a title) and my work as a nurse.
    I put my hand prayerfully to the whatever task is at hand – most of the time that means coming alongside someone in and with the love of Christ and help them to carry their burden, mentoring and discipling according to the WORD of GOD with my only boss being the LORD GOD and an audience of One from Whom it is my goal is to one day hear, “Well done…”
    Thank you for being so transparent. That is an added blessing in these articles.

    Reply

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