As I sat in the midst of the church council, comprised of at least a dozen gray heads, I was painfully aware that I was only 21 years old. They had asked me to consider being their pastor. That could not have been an easy decision for them, but I was going to ask them to do something much harder: change. As a fledgling separatist I could not join their church’s conference, but it would be simple enough for them to withdraw from it, right?
But they could hardly understand why I would ask such a thing. They had always been conservative and thought that holding to their solid tradition was enough, while the world changed around them.
Today, half a lifetime later, I am a gray head and I am struggling with the concept of change. Is it too late in the course of church history to propose another doctrine? Not so that I can teach it, but so that I can study it, a thorough “Changeology” needs to be developed. I must not be the only one who is longing to know when it is right and best to cut loose of old moorings, and when it is both courageous and wise to hold to the time-tested. Choose your hot-button issue: Bible translations, music, worship formats, personal separation standards, and probably any other you can imagine, the issue is: “to change or not to change?”
In my opinion Leith Anderson makes some good observations but comes to the wrong conclusions in his book Dying for Change, which is perhaps the volume most to the point. He says, “Two theological truths explain God’s relationship to change: immutability and sovereignty.” (11) He rightly notes that change is most often chaotic for man but never is for God. I disagree with some of his suggestions for modernizing the church, because we have different “non-negotiables,” but I appreciate his consistency.
Growing is the stuff of life, the antonym of death. Someone taught me that growth is painful because it is change. It was a prolonged lesson, but that was all that I needed to hear. I understand that change is hard. Moving from one job or ministry to another always brings a retching pain to the pit of my stomach. I ask myself every time: “It was right for me to come here; can it be right for me to leave? Is this the right time for a new chapter?” By nature I enjoy doing bold things, but I have done enough of them to know that “bold” is often another name for “stupid.”
Not all change or growth is positive. I have heard Dr. Les Ollila say, “Not all growth is good, it may just be swelling!” As we seek to grow we should ask the Lord to build our discernment first. It is a mark of maturity, along with growth in all directions, to have the wisdom to see which new bulges are positive and which are not!
If we find ourselves in a rut, whether it is of our making or someone else’s, it will take a large stride to step out of it. Stretching ourselves is the painful part of growth. Following God’s leading consistently and faithfully will open us to the accusation of being in a rut. That is an accusation which the righteous man can endure, but being consistent and faithful is the task of a lifetime.
Can fundamentalists keep clinging to “ancient landmarks” or “old paths” and still maintain personal growth? If I were on a sinking ship and was disposed to find something to which I could cling for dear life, I would want to examine the qualities of my floatation device to discern if it was really likely to float! Some ancient landmarks are real sinkers because they are man-made and not biblical. At the same time our world is mass-producing shiny new floaties which will not float. Discern between them we must.
It interests me to find that Jeremiah’s command, “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths,” (KJV, 6:16) was a call for the people to change their ways. He called for a radical change. “Radical” is a synonym for “fundamental,” according to Webster, meaning “back to the root.” There were great champions of tradition who were not truly keeping the law in letter or spirit in Jeremiah’s day, as in ours.
(The Proverbs 22:28 statement, “Remove not the ancient landmark,” occurs in an unusual situation where context is instructive to the Proverbs reader. The landmarks to be left alone were established business practices. The advice involved keeping an honest reputation.)
Personal spiritual growth requires a constant examination of what we think we know in the light of unchanging Scripture given by an immutable God. Our personal change and development require strength and courage. We cannot be stagnant and be right with God. There is no permissible plateau in the Christian experience, which is the process of sanctification. Growth is not optional, so neither is change.
Grounding seems to be just as necessary as growing for obedient believers. Change gets attention, and it can be exciting. As attention and adrenaline junkies, we may be tempted to enter a pattern of constant change. Some call it a “slippery slope” when one change leads to another. Undoubtedly, as obstacles are overcome and we are more practiced at it, making changes becomes easier. We are cautioned that it is just as important to stop when enough has been done as it is to get started. Proverbs 24:21 “My son, fear thou the LORD and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change.”
Another poor motive for change may be proving our bravery, our independence and our free-thinking. Living in this world we cannot help but be affected by its atmosphere of anarchy. We may fear being written off as irrelevant if we are not moving in some proportion to the world around us. We want to be bold and be different. Yet, it seems that the masses become more alike as they all strive to be different. True courage and individuality may require willingness to be the last one clinging to a timeless tradition. The difficulty is discerning the value of the tradition in our grasp.
The Apostle Paul’s example might be instructive here. He was constantly changing venues of ministry and making plans and changing his plans. He also wrote about changing his approach in different circumstances, “I am made all things to all men.” (1 Cor. 9:22) His “non-negotiables” were the gospel and the doctrine which he taught, and the Galatians were warned to accept no “other.”
What we are to be producing for the Lord is most often pictured by a building with foundations rather than a trailer or a tent. The changes which He prescribes lead us to more growth in the short term, but ultimately He is producing something timeless and unchanging. “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him” (Eccles. 3:14).
Glorifying God is supposed to be the focus and highest end of our lives. We want to keep growing, and we want grounding, but there must be a hierarchy of these values. And when God has lost preeminence, we have made at least one change too many.
To check our motives for change it may be helpful for us to ask, “Who are we trying to impress?” It is tempting for some fundamentalists to push boundaries or do things differently, so that they will get noticed. Rather than accusing brothers of attention-seeking, or of sacrificing orthodoxy out of pragmatism, we should not pretend to know their motives. We should be on guard, but for violations of Scripture not just tradition.
Personal growth was the focus earlier, but everyone involved in ministry loves to see the corporate kind of growth as well. What we will do to encourage or facilitate that growth begs the question, “Who are we doing it for?” We can argue that ministry growth is numbered in souls being affected and that the desperate need of souls is worthy of our most creative efforts. At the same time, though, we know better than to construct a man-centered ministry. We are not doing anything for people if we are not doing it for their Creator.
Like Moses, we are only to move with the pillar of cloud or fire. We are to hit the rock when God says so, and to change to speaking to it when He says so. Moses could not set Israel’s course by the people’s complaints or by his own whim or ambition.
Do I need to tell you that the church council that I mentioned in the beginning voted against my proposed change? They admitted that they were driven by financial fear because the conference held a $30,000 note on their $500,000 building. The Lord did direct two of the men to plant a new church with this young pastor, and a lot of change was in store for all of us. Not all of it was done in faith, hence my gray hairs.
Change has only become more difficult since then, so I will be first to buy your book on the new doctrine of “Changeology!”