[The local church] is the ‘pillar and support of the truth.’ To that institution has been committed the fate of revealed truth in this dispensation. This means it is always best to do Christian work from a full biblical agenda in the context of the local church or an association of churches of like mind and practice. The ordinances can be determined and practiced freely; doctrines peculiar to the group can be emphasized without the charge of intolerance, bigotry, insensitivity, or lack of love; the maturity of new converts can be effected with confidence; outlets of Christian service can easily be provided and mentored; and fellowship can be fully enjoyed without dancing around others’ ideologies and distinctives.
Dr. Rolland McCune writes these words in his work Promise Unfulfilled (pp 74-75), a work regarding the evangelical movement from a fundamental perspective. This is said in the context of discussing interdenominationalism and the fact that it is better to work within the local church rather than an interdenominational context. The description here is thought provoking to me on several levels.
To be sure, the ideal is and should be that we have this type of a local church. Thus, it is not the ideal that Dr. McCune speaks of that I have disagreement with. I am forced however to observe that I have never known in my own Christian life and experience a church in which there is such unanamity and fullness and Christian experience as he speaks. Disagreement with my brothers and sisters to some degree has always been part of my church life and my fellowship with Christians in general. I have never known it myself–To have a place where I felt strongly that there was “a full biblical agenda” as I understand that biblical agenda to be. What am I to make of this? My comments today can only be limited as I recognize I have more study and thought to do on this matter.
First, I will be quick to admit that a local church does need to have a common belief and practice to at least some degree. At bare minimum, this should involve fundamental doctrines about Christianity. A church should be restrictive enough that apostasy is not permitted.
Second, though, I think the statements taken in isolation seem to miss that in the New Testament we do see some degree of disagreement within a local church in practice. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians are classic texts on how to deal with brethren who disagree about practical Christian liberties. There is no suggestion that there is unanimity within the church there about these issues. While it is true that a church must have a certain degree of agreement as to what happens in its public ministry, I think there is a danger if we press this too hard because it can encourage a typo of hypocrisy in which church attendees/members put on the show in the church but then live differently in practical areas outside of church.
Third, the previous comments would seem to apply to some degree even in doctrine. In consideration of Ephesians 4:11-16, it is clear that the ministry of the church is meant to lead to “the unity of the faith”, and if that is part of the pastor’s ministry, it presupposes that the church is not there yet. Maybe the phrase could be understood in a different light, but I don’t think I am that far off here. In my own Christian experience, there are many doctrinal areas that are outside of the fundamentals of faith that have taken a very long time to develop. Am I to suppose that I make the church weaker by being in it? Am I to consider that I be a second class citizen in the church due to this? Maybe. But, it seems to be normal that there is a growth in maturity in doctrine, as well as practice. Can Dr. McCune’s vision entirely effect the “maturity of new converts…with confidence.”? Maybe, but it hasn’t in my experience personally and I’d like to think that while I am a bit unusual, I’m not the only one in this type of situation. I think the exposure Christians in developed areas have to diversity of Christian thought makes it much harder for maturity to be reached in this.
Fourth, I think this description is too strong in how it suggests a church and pastor must behave if it doesn’t have full unanimity in these deeper areas. I know from personal experience how to not see a church’s stance for what it believes as “intolerance, bigotry”, etc. If a church attendee/member feels this way, the issue may be with that person rather than with the pastor or the church structure. Or, in fact, I simply believe that one must carefully, precisely, and clearly outline its convictions in both the fundamentals and the more specific doctrinal concerns. The challenges involved in defending the faith at all apply equally to these areas. Pastoral leadership does not need to be hindered in the way that described even if more diversity is allowed in the local church.
Fifth, and finally, this is not meant to diminish the significance of McCune’s argument for the discussion about interdenominationalism. I recognize the need for the local church and do love the local church. I believe it should be the primary place where we live our Christian lives, and that there should be firm, well thought convictions. I just think this statement, as a positive declaration of the ideal in the local church, could be a bit of an overstatement about the level of uniformity of doctrine and practice that must be enforced in the local church. If a church is mature, maybe it can uphold this. However, there may be need to allow some degree of disagreement if new Christians come in or maturing Christians of a different background come in.
I come as one who desires uniformity and unity to the highest degree, but I question whether this ideal is right to try to enforce at all times. We are all maturing, and this does include doctrine. One sees the maturity, the fullness of belief and practice, in God’s purpose for pastor’s and the intended result in the body in Ephesians 4:11-16:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.