Talking about church culture -and how to change it

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One of the things coming out of the recent bullying and abuse scandals within the evangelical church has been the beginning of a conversation about church culture and the need for reformation.  I am going to give a little bit of attention to the question here.

At this stage, it is important to emphasise the following.

  • Many, many church congregations are genuinely happy places which model Christ’s call for us to love one another well. That should be no surprised. Paul, John and Peter commend as well as challenge and rebuke those they write to.
  • Some people are abusers and bullies and the cultures they operate in may have given cover and encouraged such behaviour but that does not mean the culture itself is bullying and abusive.
  • Some people are not bullies and abusers but their actions have at times made it deeply unpleasant for others (see Steve Kneale, Whilst we are still talking about culture…)
  • Some things are not abusive but people are using the opportunity to attack reasonable Biblically based convictions such as penal substitution, complementarianism and the appropriate place of church discipline (I aim to have a look at some of these issues in future posts).
  • Some people may read onto their experience or the experience of others in the church their own past experiences outside of the church.

These points mean that seeking to reform culture is about more than simply trying to improve on things like safeguarding. Our priority is not simply to make sure that we don’t have abusive cultures, many would already be there. Rather, our aim should be a positive one, to ensure that there is greater Christlikeness, greater love and greater grace shown in our churches. In those terms, I’m sure you would agree that there is always room for improvement. This is about what Ray Ortlund has been persistently driving at for some time when he has argued that we need churches that don’t just believe the doctrines of grace but practice a culture of grace.

So, what do we do? Well, I want to just make two simple suggestions from Scripture over two posts. They may not be the full answer and you may still have questions about the mechanics of it all. However, I hope they will get you thinking.

The first in todays post is that we should take a humble attitude towards each other and towards God’s Word.

Romans 12:3 says:

“3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

I am to consider myself with humility and think better of others preferring their needs to mine and valuing their gifts. Note that this is not about false humility. It is not about finding excuses not to use my God given gifts but it is about acting out of concern for the whole church.  I want to highlight two things that follow in context here.  The first is that Paul talks about gifts in the church.  My aim and desire as a member of the church should be to see everyone flourishing in their gifts so that the whole body is built up.

So a good action at this point would be to ask myself “in what ways can I play my part as a church member in encouraging others to use their gifts?”

Secondly, notice that in Romans 14, Paul then goes on to talk about the weaker and stronger brother as he also does in 1 Corinthians.  In those contexts it is fairly obvious who the weaker and stronger brothers are as the matter relates to observance of food laws. However, the challenge for us is that we quite often cannot tell who is stronger and who is weaker. However, what tends to happen is one of the following. Either, we assume that we are the stronger and demand conformity from those we consider weak in faith (in direct contradiction to what Paul says) or we assume that we are the weaker and that therefore others must acquiesce to us, which again is not what Paul asks for, rather the assumption is that the one who is weaker in faith does need to correct their beleifs but cannot be coerced into it.

So, I remember some helpful advice on this which has stood me in good stead for many years. We should all take the default position of assuming that we are the stronger brother in our treatment of each other by being gracious, loving and patient with those we disagree with. However, in terms of our relationship to Scripture and teaching, we should assume the posture of the weaker brother by being open to the possibility that our faith needs challenging and correcting. We allow God’s Word to disagree with us.