December 12, 2017

The Ethics of Change

Don Johnson

As a final follow-up to my piece on What to do When Your Church Leaves You, I want to talk about the ethics of change. We know that change is inevitable. We know we resist change for various reasons. Not all change is bad, sometimes changing times demand change for the new circumstances. We should be open to such change.

I should also specify at the outset that I am talking about change in local churches. Such change can encompass a wide range of possibilities. An obvious change is that which comes about with change of leadership. Another change is that which comes in response to changing outside circumstances – the normal change of culture, some crisis event the church or community finds itself in, etc. Some changes are forced upon a church as a matter of course, others the church (or the leadership) imposes on itself in an effort to improve the ministry of the church (at least in the minds of those making the change).

In a congregational church, when the church as a group votes on changes to be made on any matter, generally speaking the ethical questions are already answered. Usually such a vote (though it can be manipulated) comes in response to a period of discussion and evaluation of alternatives. While all may not agree with said change, the process is seen to be in order and generally speaking the people of the church accept the consequences of such changes.

However, some changes are open to ethical challenge. It is these changes I wish to address with this article.

The changes I have in mind are those brought about by leaders in the congregation, usually at least pastor-led, if not pastor-dominated. The changes are motivated by the desire to expand or revitalize a church ministry. It seems that all churches go through cycles of growth, often there are periods of increase, periods of stagnation, and (most concerning) periods of decline. The men leading change in a church can be new to that particular pulpit or they may have been in place for some time. When a church has experienced decline (for whatever reason) or stagnation, godly pastors rightly desire to see that turned around. Of course we know that “numbers do not equal success,” but still, we do want to reach more people, see more lives changed, be more effective in the lives of those already in our charge, and so on.

What to do? When things are slowing down, or a church seems to dwindle, what will reverse those trends? In circumstances where we see other churches (sometimes in the same community) enjoying relative success and numerical growth, pastors and church leaders often want to imitate the methods of the successful pastor across town or the one whose name appears in the national Christian publications. Books are read concerning church growth, theories are examined, success is studied, and methods are imitated. Changes implemented may result in growth, but they may also put the church into turmoil. Existing members may be uncomfortable with the changes, regardless of growth. They may resist the changes or grow discouraged and leave to find a church more to their liking. These people feel that the old church they knew and loved was taken from them, often without their consent or participation. How do we address that perception? And what if that perception is true?

Changes implemented for the purpose of growth usually are directed to methods or to doctrinal positions (or emphases) that are perceived to be productive and popular. Problems with changes arise when change is poorly implemented or when change radically restructures the character of a church. Implementation problems can be avoided by careful teaching, involvement of people in decision making, providing full information to the congregation about objectives, time-tables, strategies and, finally, by involving the congregation in coming to the change decision. This is just wisdom, not manipulation, it requires patience and care on the part of leadership.

When it comes to change that restructures the character of a church, one cause of turmoil that is that those leading the change discount or ignore the church’s founding documents and stated policies. Doctrinal changes that fall into this category are not necessarily a departure from the faith (apostasy) but are a departure from the reason the church was organized in the first place. If a church has a fully congregational church polity and leadership advocates for a change to a less congregational structure, perhaps following the teachings of a popular teacher, a conflict ensues. Or if a church has not been strictly Calvinist in the past, a change towards Calvinism produces conflict. Or perhaps the change isn’t doctrinal, but rather a change of policy (a church covenant, formal policy statements, long standing local tradition). The old documents or practices are seen to be out of touch with the modern world, so change is made with respect to standards, worship styles, congregational fellowship circles [in or out of an association or fellowship], and so on. The result? Turmoil amongst the existing membership, at least among those who are informed about the church’s founding principles.

Who is to say whether such change is ethically justified or not? It is easy to blame the turmoil on resistance to change on the part of the conservatives in the congregation and assume the trouble is with them. One could say that they and their attitudes are the reason for the stagnation or decline in the first place.

But if the change involves a radical restructuring of the character of the church, the conflict is not only with the objecting individuals, the conflict is with the constitution of the church itself — with its raison d’etre, its founding principles, the reason the church exists in that community in the first place.

I specifically raised the doctrinal position of Calvinism above because it has been raised in some objections to my article on church change. I don’t raise the issue simply because I am not a Calvinist. Calvinism is popular among many today. It is so popular that some think that if they were to change a church to be more Calvinist, the church would be more successful. (And certainly those changing in that direction do so because they think it is more biblical as well.)[1]

But let’s pause a moment. Suppose the changes (whether towards Calvinism, towards ‘elder rule’, towards a modernized worship style, or what have you) are changes that are counter to the church doctrinal statement or the church covenant or the long standing tradition (either written or oral) of the local church? What then? Is a pastor justified in leading his church into these changes? I’d like to offer some ethical suggestions.

  • If a man takes a pulpit with the intention to change doctrinal positions or long-standing church practice without fully informing the congregation beforehand, he is behaving unethically. He cannot ethically be a member of a church where he disagrees with the founding documents of the church — written or oral. His very membership in the church is disingenuous.
  • If a man changes his views doctrinally or practically after having been the pastor for some time, he ought to tender his resignation and pursue a different pulpit before trying to overthrow the founding documents of the church (even if he is the founding pastor). The people of the church joined the church under certain terms and conditions. To violate those terms and conditions is to breach trust with them.

The church belongs to the Lord, not the pastor. It is unethical to maintain membership in an organization with which you do not agree. It is unethical to have a hidden agenda that you implement after having been ensconced in leadership. The people who make up the church body presumably joined the church on the basis of a specified doctrinal basis. They ought to have joined with some awareness of a church covenant, or church culture, and approved the same when they joined. When you attempt to overthrow those positions, you are turning the church into something it has never been. While there may be an ethical way to lead a church body to change its organizing principles, great care must be exercised lest the convictions of members be abused by unethical change.

As I said, if the church is languishing and calls a man on the basis of changes he plans to implement and specifies beforehand, that is one thing. But hidden agendas need to be out of the equation. It is a matter of integrity. Local churches belong to the Lord, woe be to the man who tampers with the Lord’s church to further his own agenda.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Please note that by raising this example, I do so by illustration, not as an attempt to judge that point of view! []

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