Its Lonely At the Top (Nov-Dec 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

by Dan Knight
November – December, 1999

It has happened to me personally. I have felt diminished by it, although the perpetrator only inadvertently caused me to suffer. Since the pain afflicted my ego, I could not complain. I grimaced and bore it.

The scenario is simply described: A person came to me with a spiritual question. I am Minister; I am Teacher; I know Everything. So, naturally, I actively listened and confidently responded to her query. She thanked me and I assumed my rejoinder had satisfied her fully. Later, I overheard the same woman asking the same question of someone else. How could she? Doesn’t she understand my answer? Is she just verifying it? Or, as I suspect, is she really interested in an answer that will please her rather than in hearing the truth?

Much later I confronted the reality that I didn’t want to accept: I could not respond adequately to her spiritual need.

Now I ask you to multiply that scenario: picture a church that prides itself on giving a Bible answer for any question. Picture a church that has successfully resolved all the issues. Picture a group that is the true Israel of God: we have struggled with the controversy and have emerged victorious.

Upon this group of righteous soldiers comes an unsuspecting visitor. He is impressed with their knowledge, their insight, their conclusions, their biblical wisdom. They lead him through the proper steps of salvation. He submits to Christ (and to the pattern) and begins to grow in his faith. Then the fateful day arrives.

He feels stifled. He has interacted with Christians from other folds (beware the Promise Keepers!) and found his own spiritual life only monochromatic when compared to their fully colorized version. So he informs his leaders of the joy of his discovery. Instead of being treated with respect and encouragement, he is shamed and blamed. The Enforcers of Church Doctrine and Purity blast him for his heresies. They attack the inconsistencies of the other group and leave their once “faithful” member a spiritual wreck, a wounded survivor of a doctrinal skirmish.

Why is it so hard for a church to accept the fact that it might be unable to satisfy adequately every person’s spiritual need? Here are my answers to that question:

First, the Enforcers have painted their churches into a corner. Pick an issue, any issue. Let’s say the role of women in the assembly. The answers are multiple: women can do this, women can’t do that. However, the “this” and the “that” very drastically from interpretation to interpretation. Nonetheless, the Enforcers collectively come to a conclusion and that settles it. They have arrived at the right anser. Any conclusion that does not agree with their choice must therefore be a wrong answer. Subsequently, when someone suggests a different wind of doctrine, the Enforcers respond strongly. “No! We have studied the matter and there is no room for more than one right conclusion.” So the church is stuck and drives people away.

Secondly, most Enforcers tend to think of their respective churches as the end of the journey. Anyone struggling and searching for biblical clarity need go no further. “We are at the pinnacle. We have reached the correct conclusion on all of the essential matters and agreeing with us is as spiritually mature as a person could ever be. How could there be a higher level? If there were, we would have told you. Moreover, we would have gone there if there were anywhere higher to go.”

But would they? That brings us to answer number three.

The Enforcers’ comfort zone does not allow them to move outside the box of their own interpretations. I was castigated once for offering a different interpretation of Ephesians 1:3. In my inexperienced state of development, I did not know the “standard” understanding. So, I shared what I read and how I read it. I was accused of denying the truth of scripture. Later I realized that what I had denied was the veracity of the Enforcers’ reading of that particular passage.

Finally, there is the energy question. It takes a lot more energy to think outside the box. The Enforcer feels, but may not admit this: “Not only do I find comfort in this position, my longtime inertia here has totally enervated me. I don’t care if this new understanding is turning the world upside down. I like my view from my sovereign cushion of orthodoxy and I’m staying here. Right here where God is.”

Unfortunately, that is not how growth works. Growth comes from turning toward the Son and loving him so much that I’l do whatever it takes to become more like him. If the body I’m a part of will not allow that growth, I must, by God’s empowering grace, sever my ties and allow myself to be grafted in elsewhere.

We, as God’s leaders, must overcome our fear that giving people freedom will cause us to lose their allegiance. Remember the movie Miracle on 34th Street? Kris Kringle was working for Macy’s as their department store Santa Claus. However, he occasionally referred people to rival department stores if he knew they carried a better product. Store leaders were furious until they discovered the wonderful serendipity that followed Kringle’s approach. People appreciated Macy’s integrity! Customer relations were improved, not diminished.

For us, too, it is an integrity issue. If, in all honesty, we will admit that we are still growing spiritually, we must also admit that there may be people, teachers, and groups who have answers that we do not. We may not be the last spiritual step in every person’s spiritual development. When we embrace this truth, we are free. If we will not accept it, we will wither and die in our sinful arrogance.Wineskins Magazine

Dan Knight

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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