Thousands of small congregations dot the spiritual landscape of American Christianity. They are still the backbone of much serious, faithful Christian faith and practice. It has been said that the average church has 65 people in attendance on Sunday morning. I like small churches. They can do things relationally that are missed by almost all larger churches. I pastored a church of 75-100 people for sixteen years. I am now, very happily, a member of a church of 100 or less people on Sunday morning. My wife and I know and love the flock and feel the warmth of God’s love in our church.

But small churches can be easily tyannized in rather unique ways. One such tyranny that I have witnessed over the past twenty-five years or so occurs in small Reformed churches. These congregations are always male dominated. Accordingly, they crush female spirituality by turning women into what one brother has appropriately called, "Stepford wives." These churches almost always adopt a strong "elder rule" pattern of leadership. The elders, who answer to no one else, control the life of the flock very directly, often quite beyond healthy pastoral patterns of care. Life in these churches revolves around biblical principles, so-called. Theology, as rigid confessionalism, is central to everything the church thinks and does. And the person of Christ is often diminished, though no one realizes it in most cases. Stress is placed upon listening to sermons, and learning from adult Bible classes, as the primary reason for the church to gather in public. Little else matters in comparison to learning and being faithful to "the tradition." Doctrine, understood in these very narrow ways, becomes everything.

In such churches real conversion rarely happens. Leaders celebrate the addition of Christians who join from other ("bankrupt") Christian traditions. When people join such a church from other "non-biblical" groups this is seen as a great spiritual blessing and evidence of God’s approval. The arrogance that goes with this is staggering when seen from any distance at all.

The life of such churches generally grows out of opposition to many other evangelical beliefs and practices. Altar calls and Arminian theology are often cited by these churches as harmful and thus they are systematically attacked. The problem in this kind of church is all too common and quite sad–it produces an academic and lifeless theology that can never replace human warmth and spiritual reality in a vital community of living faith.

Many such churches are more like "cults" than Chrstian churches, at least in terms of their sociology. This tragic virus runs wildly in many small churches but then some larger churches are not entirely immune either. (Several come to my mind even as I write!) If you are in such a church, or know someone who is, pray that you and/or they will get out. Your soul will expand in real love much sooner if you follow this difficult pastoral advice learned through some very hard lessons.

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  1. Steve June 20, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Your description gives me an eerie feeling as I’ve attended or been aquainted with several such churches as you describe. In addition, I’ve experienced “elder rule” taken to such an extent that elders also control the doctrine of the church – in white glove treatment fashion. While Jesus told us that the Spirit would lead us into all truth, in practice it is the elders who do so. These “Protestants” then practice their own version of the Roman doctrine of ex cathedra. Differing from or even questioning their version of true doctrine might lead them to show you the door.
    I even heard one pastor (a former elder of mine at a previous church) who had just taken a job in a congregation boast about his successive initial sermons, an “Arminian bomb”, a “charismatic bomb” and a “paedobaptist bomb” to “weed out” the undesirable doctrine holders from his (God’s) midst. Thank God he mellowed out quite a bit over the next few years.
    Get out? Ya think?

  2. carm_centuri0n June 21, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    Pastor Armstrong:
    I own a Christian bookstore, and I interact regularly with the members of about 100 local churches. I see the cross-section of Christian life in the Bible belt.
    I think your qualification that the kind of tyrrany that you have described as “{occuring} in small Reformed churches” is, at best, reductive. My experience is that it happens in rural churches that have a bunker mentality. It certainly happens in Mennonite Pentecostal churches — and I wouldn’t call those folks “reformed” in the way you mean here.
    The principles of the Reformation are not a dark shadow into which unsuspecting Christians fall. There are certainly serious problems with Christianity in America today — anyone who says otherwise is not looking very closely. But to hang the red “A” on the neck of “reformed” churches is simply too narrow a view.
    Let me propose something else: a bunker mentality is what leads to the kinds of aberrations you are talking about here. Circling the wagons and turning one’s spiritual life in the hands of a deacon, or elder, or whatever one might call him at the cost of reaching out to with your fellow Christians to those in your Judea, and Samaria, and then to the far corners of the Earth, is the disease. And it is rampant.
    Christians ought not to live in a bunker. As the Epistle to Diognetus tells us, the generations of Christians who converted the world from gentile paganism to the faith in Jesus Christ did not live in a bunker, but instead
    They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
    God willing, we can be a church like this. In that, villainizing “reformed” churches of any size or stripe is the wrong kind of zealotry.

  3. carm_centuri0n June 21, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    There’s a typo above: it should be “Mennonite and Pentecostal”. If you ever meet a Mennonite Pentecostal, run the other way. 🙂

  4. Two-Edged Sword June 21, 2005 at 11:39 pm

    Armstrong’s Escape from Reason and Responsibility

    If you have ever wondered what the logical fallacy of a Hasty Generalization looks like, John Armstrong’s recent post is a perfect example. . . .

  5. Koheleth June 22, 2005 at 8:45 am

    When you mentioned “Mennonite Pentecostal” I assumed you were referring to the Remnant or Charity movement. There are indeed Mennonite Pentecostals in the land.

  6. ABC June 22, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    As you know, I’ve been in the kind of tyrannnzed church you described.
    My wife made an extraordinarily accurate and prophetic insight one morning as we drove to church. She asked me, “Do you know why Pastor H. conducts himself as he does in the church by tyrannizing the members?” I offered some response that wasn’t very convincing for either my wife or me. My wife, then, uttered one of her frequent brilliant observations concerning human behavior. She said, “Because Pastor H. is not head of his home but dominated by his wife, the church is the one and only place that he can exercise authority. So, to prove to himself and to others that he is truly a man, he exercises his authority to the extreme.”
    Since we left that church, I have observed how accurate my wife’s observation truly is. Repeatedly, I have observed men who are mice at home but lions in the church. I have also observed that these same men regularly are the most outspoken men in defense of male headship in the home and in the church. They overcompensate in public for their private failures to be heads of their homes in a biblical manner. Thus, I have coined an axiom: Show me a man who frequently preaches on male headship and you will have shown me a man who fails to carry out at home the kind of headship he preaches to others. The corollary axiom: Such a man will govern the church with tyranny.

  7. Coffee Conversations June 22, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    Important words…

    …from John Armstrong, though I’m not sure I currently agree with his solution….

  8. Doug Baker June 23, 2005 at 6:45 am

    You have so perfectly described a church that my wife and I attended for a few years. Doctrinally powerful, relationally weak. We poured ourselves entirely into the church and every one of our friends, without exception, was in that church. To a wiser person that should have been a warning sign, but we were young. When a secondary doctrinal difference almost forced us to look for a new church, much against our desire, we discovered that of all the very close friendships that we had built, only one friend was willing to maintain a more than cordial relationship. The pastors (to whom we had been quite close) both became decidedly adversarial. I still ache to remember how lightly my friendship was cast aside by those who had seemed to be my family.
    A side note: I was the exception to your rule in that I was, and remain, soundly converted to the love of Jesus, largely through the labor of those pastors who later disowned me. I thank Jesus that he is not so fickle.
    Doug Baker

  9. Craig W. Booth June 23, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    My wife and I, back in the 70’s were in a fellowship of churches consumed with a Shepherding Movement mentality. Certainly the elders ruled the flock in matters ecclesiastical, domestic, and social, even matching partners for marriage. As you say, they held to specific doctrines dogmatically, expelling those who contradicted these doctrines.
    What they did not do is hold to biblical doctrine with the same ferocity as they did to their aberrant doctrinal inventions. In their minds they saw Scripture teaching evangelism as the foremost of all commandments–and so they interpreted every passage of Scripture with the outcome that every verse meant “go evangelize.”
    They also held to other improper doctrines (or exaggerations of doctrines), such as every male must desire to become a deacon, then an elder. Every male must become married so as to be eligible for eldership. And, of course, it was the sin of divorce to leave the local church for another.
    John, these overlords did not cling to real theology, that is to say biblical theology, so much as their own twisted brand of theology. Indeed, that is why they started their own denomination in the first place. It is my opinion that the more dear that biblical theology is embraced, that the Word is embraced, by the elders and the congregation, the more they will love people and love God. Genuinely. After all, the entire summation of theology (the Word) is: love God, love your neighbors.
    “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ “
    “…and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. “

  10. Steve Cornell December 8, 2007 at 9:56 am

    As far as Progressive/Charismatic Mennonites, check Petra fellowship out in New Holland, PA. Also I read and interesting book, Escaping Church, by Tim Mather. He like myself is part of the American house church movement.
    Steve Cornell

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