Needed Church Decisions, Unavoidable Risk: Part 3
Setting the church's direction shouldn't require blind obedience.

Editor's Note: Today is part three of a three-part series looking at the ways difficult decisions must be made, even when they're sometimes risky. Part one looked at personnel decisions and part two looked at commitment and considering the good of many with decisions.

Using the principle of commitment for situations other than institutional ones compounds their difficulty.

It is perhaps easiest to confuse an institutional problem with a theological one and ask for obedience when commitment is necessary. For example, when a leader claims, "God told me to build this building," he has masked an institutional matter — will a new building help our church be more effective, and can we afford it? — as a theological issue. Instead of asking people to commit themselves to the hard work of determining building needs and projecting income, he demands their obedience by divine fiat.

Why does this type of confusion occur? Partly because there is a relationship between theology and the institution. Good theology undergirds all decisions in a church, whether institutional, interpersonal, or personal. Good theology increases the chances that a church will be a good institution. In an intriguing study reported in the Review of Religious Research, Doyle Johnson investigated the relationship between commitment to the church and the acting out of justice in the community. He found those persons most likely to be racially tolerant and working for social good in the community were also the most involved and committed to the institutional church.

Problems arise, however, when institutional decisions that call for a pragmatic answer are "solved" by demanding obedience. Demand obedience to a church leader on institutional matters, and cultic devotion usually results. Call for obedience to a group or institution, and chauvinism results. In institutional matters, discussion and give-and-take are needed, not unquestioning obedience.

In many ways, obedience is easier to give than commitment. What passes for obedience in the cases of cultism and chauvinism is often mindless escapism, the tired, panic-stricken obeisance of people unwilling to work out the complex problems of making an institution effective. Let's let our leaders worry about this; we'll do whatever they say, seems to be the attitude.

Commitment calls for wrestling with the tensions between the sacred and the profane, for doing deeds that defy the ethos of the age, and for persisting in the face of imperfect people and imperfect laws. At every stage we are tempted to throw it all over and say, What's the use?

Commitment is a muscular word, a sinewy perseverance that calls for hard decisions and a willingness to take responsibility for making a church work. It expects high ideals yet relaxes about the inevitable slippages and restarts characteristic of a fallen world.

Institutional problems can also be confused with interpersonal problems. When that happens, a leader calls for forgiveness when commitment is needed. Take, for example, two elders fighting over whether a church should start a day school. Two church members are in conflict; it appears to be an interpersonal problem. But what is really at stake is an institutional matter—will a day school help this church serve its members and community more effectively? In this case, a pastor's primary task is to keep the parties discussing the difficult institutional decision until they reach resolution. The pastor's attitude must be "Let's commit ourselves to working this out."

But when the conflict becomes painful, it's tempting to give up and call for forgiveness: "This fight has been going on too long. Let's just let it drop. Jim and Larry, you both need to forgive each other." But spreading the balm of forgiveness without resolving the underlying institutional conflict heals nothing. It is like trying to cure a broken arm with petroleum jelly.

If a pastor confuses an institutional risk with an interpersonal one, the institution is weakened. There are times when a church does not need more forgiveness, or rhetoric about loving and caring, but simply a dogged, persistent attention to structure.

Adapted from When to Take a Risk, copyright 1987 Christianity Today. Full access to this book is available through membership access at CT Library. For more information on making decisions, see's downloadable training resource on the topic.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

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