How Big is Your Church? (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, okay – its NOT your church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the firstborn ones. It is described in a number of ways – but I’m asking a question that is designed to prick in a certain spot. And so, I ask, how big is your church?

I have been thinking about this question for a number of weeks. In writing these two posts I do not think that I will solve any major issues, but maybe in putting some things in “print” I can work through those issues in my own mind. In this first post I want to discuss the mistake (sin) of making your church too small. Then, in terms of fairness, I want to discuss the opposite mistake (sin) of making your church too big.

The other day I re-discovered a story that I first heard years ago. It states, far better than I can, the ultimate end of trying to make one’s church perfect, and therefore to remove anyone who does not “fit.”

When I first became a member of the church my circle was very big . . . for it included all who, like myself, had believed and had been baptized. I was happy in the thought that my brethren were many . . . but — having a keen and observant mind– I soon learned that many of my brethren were erring. I could not tolerate any people within my circle but those who, like myself, were right on all points of doctrine and practice. Too, some made mistakes and sinned. What could I do? I had to do something! I drew my circle, placed myself and a few as righteous as I within, and the others without. I soon observed that some within my circle were self-righteous, unforgiving, jealous, and proud, so in righteous indignation, my circle I drew again, leaving the publicans and sinner outside, excluding the Pharisees in all their pride, with myself and the righteous and humble within. I heard ugly rumors about some brethren. I saw then that some of them were worldly minded; their thoughts were constantly on things of a worldly nature, they drank coffee, when, like me, they should drink tea. So, duty bound to save my reputation, I drew my circle again, leaving those reputable, spiritually-minded within. I soon realized in time that only my family and I remained in that circle. I had a good family, but to my surprise, my family finally disagreed with me. I was always right. A man must be steadfast. I have never been a factious man! So in strong determination I drew my circle again, leaving me quite alone. (Author unknown – I attempted to discover the author but was unable to with full certainty).

The sad thing is, I KNOW individuals who fit this little story exactly!

The problem is, when we start shaving off pieces of the church because those people do not fit our concept of the “righteous remnant,” the shaving never stops. Eventually it gets down to just me and you, and to be quite honest, I’m not too sure about you, either.

TRUE STORY – Within the Churches of Christ we have a number of congregations that would consider themselves to comprise the “righteous remnant.” One of their well known preacher/authors was a man by the name of Homer Hailey. Brother Hailey was a well known evangelist and scholar who came to believe and to promote what is pejoratively referred to as the “anti” view within the Churches of Christ. These Christians do not believe, for example, that it is proper for the Lord’s church to support physical institutions such as orphan children’s homes, or schools of higher learning (thus, they are “anti-institutional”). Most will refuse to have any part of their building associated with a kitchen or fellowship room, and a great many of them will refuse to have separate classes for children and adults, some will refuse to pay a full-time, located preacher. Some insist on using only one cup for the Lord’s Supper (the “one-cuppers”). There are many varieties, however; for example, some will pay a preacher, but not have separate classes.

As I mentioned, Homer Hailey was one of the better known preacher/prophets of this wing of the Churches of Christ. Then, almost unknowingly and certainly unwillingly, Bro. Hailey was “excommunicated” from this faction of the church because he taught that an individual who had been married, divorced for a reason other than adultery, and then remarried prior to becoming a Christian did NOT have to then subsequently separate from their second (or later) spouse in order to demonstrate full repentance. To many in the “anti-institutional” group of the church this was just pure heresy – if one divorced for any reason other than adultery and then remarried they were living in an adulterous relationship and HAD to separate in order to be a faithful Christian.

Homer Hailey, hero and preacher extraordinaire, had to go. The circle got smaller.

(For the full story, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), especially chapter 7.

The question is, how small is your church? On what basis do you exclude those with whom you cannot fellowship? I will freely admit that I have my circle too (see next post!). But – on what basis do we make those decisions?

I know of no one who “draws their circle” smaller and smaller who would admit to doing so for purely personal reasons. Everyone has a reason exterior to their own admitted whims and fancies. Roman Catholics use the “magisterium” of the Roman Church – allegiance to the Pope and to the church councils. Lutherans have their confessions of faith, as do the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Baptists. As previously mentioned, within the Churches of Christ there are a bewildering number of unwritten creeds and confessions that must be adhered to in order for one to be considered a “faithful” member of the church.

And in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said he would build ONE church – His church. In Acts 2 those who believed and were baptized were added to ONE church. As dysfunctional as they were, there was only ONE church that one could be a member of in Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome. There were divisions, to be sure, and Paul wept over them and worked to heal them. But, there was only ONE church.

As I said way up above, I have no firm, rock solid, undeniable answer to this question. I do, however, have some serious issues with those who attempt to make the Lord’s church much smaller than he would make it.

My main issue is this – when we “draw our circle” smaller and smaller we are acting in the role of God – whether we want to admit to that or not. When we say that someone is “saved” or “lost,” “faithful” or “erring,” based upon tendentious interpretations of disputed texts, we are making ourselves to be divine arbiters of heaven and hell, and that is a VERY dangerous place to be. As one of my favorite professors once said regarding his own journey of faith, “I came to realize that being God was above my pay grade.”

This post, as well as the next, is designed not so much to provide an answer, but to get us to probe one of the most critical questions we can ask ourselves – how big is our church and upon what criteria are we going to make that determination?

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope my meandering thoughts somehow point you closer to the heart of the One who died for us.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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