By Bob Perry
I love the church. Nearly every good thing that has happened in my life has involved the church. I was saved, baptized, married, ordained and commissioned as a missionary in the church.
Most of my spiritual experiences and blessings have come because of the church. However, I have also seen churches make terrible mistakes and do bad things to people. It makes a huge difference whether the church is healthy or unhealthy.
One of my seminary professors, Doran McCarty, used to say, "Healthy churches make people healthy; sick churches make people sick."
The same is true for denominations and denominational organizations. A church that gives its support and approval (even tacitly) to an unhealthy organization is inviting that same sickness to invade its own fellowship. What are the characteristics of an unhealthy denominational structure?
1. Chronic conflict. Any church or denominational group may have occasional episodes of conflict. But in a healthy organization, these will be acknowledged, dealt with, resolved and the group will move on, usually without significant loss of members. But the organization that remains in a perpetual state of conflict, moving from one crisis to another, is not healthy. The sick organization seems to need the continual conflict to keep itself motivated and to keep its constituents interested.
2. Creating enemies. In the unhealthy church, the enemy is not the devil or the heathen world; the enemy is identified as my fellow believer who sits at the other end of the pew. And in order to convince myself and others that he or she is the enemy, I have to exaggerate the level of his error and its danger to the church.
That "making of enemies" where they don't exist is characteristic of the unhealthy denominational organization.
3. Condemning attitudes. Listen to the rhetoric in the unhealthy organization. It is judgmental and legalistic. It pronounces condemnation on people and denounces them as heretical. With no evidence to support the accusation, the accusation itself becomes the judgment of guilt.
4. Control obsession. Unhealthy organizations despise and seek to destroy any form of dissent. There is an enormous fear of a "free press" or any form of communication that cannot be controlled and "spun." Dissenters are systematically excluded and sent away.
5. Confusion about mission. Unhealthy churches and denominational organizations lose sight of the New Testament mission for which they were founded. They become preoccupied with their own survival, and over time their structure, budgets, methods and priorities no longer reflect the biblical mission that they claim for themselves.
So when should a person think about leaving a church, or a church think about leaving a particular denominational organization?
* When the organization has become so unhealthy that to continue to be a part of it becomes a threat to one's own spiritual and emotional health.
* When the individual member realizes that he or she is powerless to change the organization and has no hope of moving it toward improved health.
* When a person realizes that to continue to support the unhealthy organization financially becomes irresponsible stewardship. Christian stewardship involves not just giving our money to God's work, but also making wise decisions about the channels and causes through which we give.
* When a person understands that "If I disengage and find a new and healthier relationship, it will give me a fresh start and a new spiritual orientation."
* When the Spirit of God says to your spirit, "It is time."
A very good church resourcing organization called Leadership Network began a few decades ago and described its mission, in part, as "finding and working with the islands of health and strength" in the Christian world. I like that.
A part of being an historical Baptist is to be free. Free believers in free churches can make their own decisions about how to relate to one another, how to relate to other Christians, how to give their money and how to conduct their church life.
Be encouraged to know that there are places in the Baptist world where people genuinely love each other, where churches and denominational organizations are pursuing a New Testament mission and where hateful speech is not considered normative.
In what seems like a sea of dysfunction, there are some "islands of health and strength" where Christians can invest themselves in serving God and serving the world for which Christ died. Wouldn't you prefer to invest your time, energy and money there?
Bob Perry is senior consultant for Organizational Health Associates in Willard.