Most pastors have heard it many times, especially if they are active on the Internet — it hits their email inbox all the time. “Something has gone wrong in my church.” Sometimes it is from another pastor, sometimes a member of the congregation, often from someone he doesn’t even know, who gets in touch online.
There’s an additional statement that often comes with it: “It’s not doctrinal. The church still teaches sound doctrine.” That addendum is wrong. It is always doctrinal. Problems always are.
The most common errors are probably in Bibliology, the doctrine of what the Scriptures are, their inspiration, authority, and sufficiency. Close behind, if not even more common, are errors in ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church of Jesus Christ, what it is, its purpose, and its leadership. But perhaps underlying almost every problem is a failure to truly carry out what it means when we say God is great, holy, loving, and true. If we didn’t diminish who God is, it would probably be impossible to have problems in the church.
Is the problem that the church has a pastor who won’t lead, or one that is dictatorial? Those are doctrinal problems. Whatever may be said from the pulpit or in Bible studies, the practice of the church in teaching the role of church leadership is not according to sound doctrine. The ecclesiology is in disarray. If the pastor is dictatorial, the Bibliology of the church is also likely in trouble — instead of the Bible being the authority, the pastor begins to become the authority in the church. If the pastor is the authority, then we diminish God.
Is the church adopting new and questionable practices in an attempt to bring more people into the church? Whatever the words of the doctrinal statement may say, the practice of the church is based on a flawed doctrine of salvation. The pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, including His work in regenerating lost souls) has also probably gone astray, as that is effectively set aside for the view that the new practices are the key to evangelism. We’ve replaced the work of the Spirit with our own ideas — and diminished God by saying our ideas can do what the Spirit does.
Has the church become emotionalistic, giving the emotions of an individual or the entire group a central focus? This is doctrinal error on many levels, skewing the ecclesiological doctrine of the church’s worship so that it becomes more about human emotions than about honouring God — we reduce God to a reason for me to get excited or emotional. It is flawed Bibliology, for the Scripture emphasises truth — the facts of what God has done (not “how I feel”). It is often errant anthropology (the doctrine of what Bible says man is) by exalting human feelings to the most important part of who we are.
Is the church unfriendly and cold? The church’s doctrinal practice, whatever is taught in words, denies the doctrines of regeneration and sanctification which teach us to love. It denies the ecclesiological truth that the church is a family of brothers and sisters, a body united together.
Is the time of teaching the Word decreasing? If you decide that your church needs more time on other things and less on Scripture, you effectively deny the inspiration and sufficiency of the Scriptures. Is a pastor’s preaching changing, so that he spends less time simply explaining the Scriptures, and more time telling stories? Does he give the impression he is more concerned with a powerful or entertaining performance than with simply communicating truth? It is the same problem — the pastor’s presentation has been exalted to the detriment of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Is someone grumbling and complaining? That is a denial of the doctrine of last things (eschatology), our future hope. It is also a denial of the doctrinal truths about sin — if we really believe our sin is as bad as God sees it, then we know that we deserve nothing but judgment, and we have nothing of which to complain. If we complain because we think we deserve better, we deny the doctrinal truths of God’s grace. In fact, grumbling is a denial of almost every doctrine in the Bible.
Is there gossip in the church? That is a doctrinal error on the doctrine of sanctification (as Christians, part of the holy life we are to live is to speak the truth) and the doctrine of the church (we are to be one body, united, loving one another).
If your church has a problem (and which church doesn’t?), it can always be traced back to doctrine, either what is taught in word or what is taught in practice, or both. Almost always, if doctrinal errors are practiced long enough, they begin to make their way into the verbal teaching of the church as well.
Note: Of course, the problem just might be you. You might be the one who is grumbling or gossiping. The church’s problems may not be anywhere near as bad as you are making them out to be. You may be the one who is in doctrinal error (in your practice, whatever you say you believe).
How can you tell? And (the vital question) if the church is in trouble, how can you help?
A good place to start is to identify the doctrinal questions involved. If there is a real problem, there is a doctrinal error. Cut through the surface considerations to identify just exactly which doctrine is at stake. There may be more than one, for many wrong behaviours violate more than one doctrine.
Once we’ve done this, we begin to see the problem Biblically. When we see problems Biblically, then we not only understand them better, we are well on our way to finding Biblical solutions.
Furthermore, when we can identify the Scriptures and doctrines which are at stake, we are much better equipped to discuss the problems with others, if necessary. This does not guarantee that any such discussions will go well, but using the Scriptures gives an authority which we could never have on our own. Most importantly, we’re using God’s way of addressing problems. The Scriptures are sufficient for the problems in our churches, if we will only use them.
Not every difference between people in a church is doctrinal, but if it isn’t doctrinal, then it isn’t a real problem. If it is real, there certainly is doctrine at stake somewhere — someone (or the church as a whole) is denying true doctrine, in words, actions, or both, whether they recognise it or not. If you sort out the doctrine (both stated and applied), you sort out the church.