On Building Fences Around Fences (Part 2)

Click here to read part one of this post.

It takes a lot of hard work to work in community to hammer out convictions about how to apply Scripture to our lives. Even if I don’t agree with the particular conclusions of particular church or group, it’s been my experience that the evidence of the hard work often shows in the way in which they apply those rules. They are rules after all, which means there are lines and boundaries, but the hard work tends to rub off the rough edges of the way in which they’re delivered and enforced.

When a group of leaders adopts a group of rules without thinking, there is a temptation for leaders and congregants alike to hit the knee jerk button – as in, overreacting if anyone gets too near to that boundary line. For example:

  • In a rigidly complementarian church, a woman who works outside the home may be treated as a second-class member. It may be subtle (all the women’s gatherings are scheduled for mornings) or it may be overt (from-the-pulpit remarks about those unsubmissive women who aren’t content to be “keepers at home”).
  • In a progressive mainline congregation, a man who attended a series of spiritual renewal events and is now reading and applying Scripture in a way that would be consistent with his Charismatic brethren may be marginalized by those who find his new “enthusiasm” to be childish. This marginalization might include social pressure designed to communicate to him that he’s no longer welcome in this otherwise-welcoming congregation. 

I understand that a two-sentence sketch of a situation certainly doesn’t cover all of the angles. The woman who works outside the home may be attending this church because her husband loves the preaching; the man who experienced renewal might be an obnoxious, opinionated boor. 

But I also recognize that when leaders simply swallow the party line of a particular ideology without chewing their own food (or even spitting some of it out!), they will create a culture where fear is the rule. One of the large mega-churches near where I live has a very high-profile opinionated, brash leader. I keep running into refugees from this congregation, and one thing I keep hearing from them is that the church is a place of fear. Even the people I’ve known who continue to attend the church for various reasons admit this is so. The pressure not to question and to conform is great in this particular church.

The culture of fear means that lower-level ministry leaders tend to parrot what the Big Cheese says about all lifestyle issues as if it is what Scripture says. For example, the powerful pastor rants about the evils of alcohol in a few sermons. The midlevel ministry leaders then echo his opinion that drinking is a sin as if it is dogma worth dying for, complete with the pastor’s thumb-tacked Bible verses about the issue. Those who don’t share that opinion are shamed as weaker, carnal Christians. A small group leader sees another small group leader buying a 6-pack at Jewel; the beer-buyer is subject to gossip and a meeting or two with a higher-up.

In a church with mature leadership, a pastor or other microphone-holder might have the conviction that drinking is not a wise thing to do. Heck, he or she might even be a recovering alcoholic, and have very good reasons and a whole backstory for this conviction. However, in community, this leader learns and continues to remember that he or she needs to maintain his/her convictions while allowing others to have theirs. In other words, they work hard keep the main thing the main thing, and they tend to speak with grace and maturity to those possessing different convictions as a result.

Of course, gender roles or hermeneutics and pneumatology, as in my bullet-pointed examples above, are a far cry from a six of PBR. But the metrics of maturity still apply here. If a group of leaders adopts a package of someone else’s convictions on an issue without doing the work themselves, they will be tempted to put fences of fear around those convictions in order to keep their congregants away from violating them. If a group of church leaders believes that a woman shouldn’t teach men and they haven’t really thought about why, then it is a lot easier to keep women out of all ministry leadership roles (save of leading and mentoring other women, or running the nursery) and speak of those who may have a difference of doctrine on the matter as weaker, carnal Christians. Shame and fear may seem like excellent materials from which to build a fence around a fence, but if that’s the shortcut a leader uses to keep his or her people away from violating the doctrine contained inside the fence, it’s a pretty sure bet the leader – or the leadership team – hasn’t done the real work of a mature leader: 

..(equipping) his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Eph. 4:12-15)

What do you think? How do you recognize the difference between a leader who is simply parroting a party line and one who has “done the work”? 


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  • Pat68

    Man, this describes a previous church to a tee. It wasn’t until after a dogmatic leader left, that I began to see what a hold he had on people’s thinking. Adults who were working in ministry leadership roles, who were stagnated in their thinking and thought the leaders expositions were gospel truth. I can remember after one frustrating meeting trying to get some of these leaders to think about some changes we were considering making, one of them said to me, “We’re not used to thinking for ourselves.” How utterly sad and this from a woman who was fairly well-studied in the scriptures.

  • I love the term “the metrics of maturity”. We have a church around the corner from ours which fits the fear-of-breaking-the-party-line mentality you describe perfectly, and we shelter many refugees from there. Your post makes me appreciate the grace and wisdom of my pastor’s reserve in making public statements on divisive topics: not because he hasn’t done the work of thinking through these issues (he has), but because he knows that followers in a big church are quick to erect fences along the lines where they believe their leaders have taken stances… And those are not the lines in the sand he wants to draw.

  • Tim

    Those pronouncements from the pulpit that are then taken as Scriptural dogma can be crippling, Michelle. People who listen to preachers have to do the heavy lifting too, like Paul found the people doing in Berea. I also think this is where creeds come in handy. Well thought out statements of faith that are directly and overtly connected to Scripture guide rather than bind, as they take people into the Bible for a better understanding of central issues and beliefs.


    P.S. Have you read Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative? Aimee Byrd pointed me to it, and after reading it I wrote about it here: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/rumor-has-it-carl-trueman-sings-adele/

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Thanks for the feedback, all. Something tells me most of us reading these words know of leaders and followers of the kind I describe above.

    It takes courage to ask questions or stand apart from a culture of fear. But more and more, I realize that loving God heart, soul, mind and strength requires courage of us. Exercise of that courage may cost us, will cause us short-term discomfort, but will in the end lead us toward maturity.

    I do commend Tim’s post about Carl Trueman’s book, below. Having a theological grid and anchor about what the essentials of the faith are will help us all recognize an opinion for what it is, and not confuse it with a statement of dogma or doctrine.

    • Tim

      Thanks, Michelle. By the way, my post that is closely related to part one of your series here is going up tomorrow, Monday.