Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom; and with all your getting get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)
The superintendent was very strong in his endorsement for me to be pastor of the young church. At the same time, however, he warned me about a possible parochial prejudice in the constitution or bylaws of the church. Before accepting the call, I requested a full copy of both. A thorough examination of each write-up revealed only total conformity to doctrinal integrity. I felt comfortable in taking the call, and our warm reception by the people was most encouraging. On occasion I could sense a feeling of strict behaviorism, but finding nothing to support such in written form or document, the caution appeared to be nothing more than asterisk that could be disregarded.
It was less than a month after my installation when my first counseling opportunity presented itself as two young adults arrived in my office. Knowing immediately they were there to discuss marriage, I was very pleased that Phil and Karin had come to me. Before long, however, the touchy matter of divorce came up as Karin shared her story. Her prior husband had been brutal to his then sixteen-year old bride, and divorce came after only a few months of marriage to that soldier. Interestingly, and unknown by Phil and Karin, the sad story about her earlier relationship had been told to me by those who had known the facts of her family’s history.
Nevertheless, divorce was viewed as inexcusable, and remarriage was considered the creation of an adulterous, sinful relationship. Both my new “counselees” were familiar with the strong opposition among the church membership to remarriage and the problem a new pastor would face if he even considered the possibility of marrying them. Even so, they decided to ask, which at least gave hope for a future ministry with them.
When I briefly explained my usual six-week procedure in pre-marital preparation for marriage before agreeing to perform the ceremony, there was a noticeable resistance to any further delay. In fact, they insisted that the wedding must be within the next ten days or the license they had already obtained would expire.
In addition, just that morning I had come upon files containing the applications for church membership along with all the completed forms of the current congregation. What a revelation it was! And, there IT finally appeared—the item to which the superintendent had referred. What was and what wasn’t in that form gave a new picture of where I now found myself. What could I do about this? Up to this point, I hadn’t seen much humor in anything to do with this matter; later I’ll share some of what I was able to find out about this strong stance against “sin and worldliness.”
To begin with, I’m sad to say, the church membership form had no request for a new applicant to give witness to his or her conversion or personal faith. All that was insisted upon was the applicant’s name, desire to join, and answers to the list of several questions regarding personal lifestyle. As I recall, the subjects had to do with all the major vices of evil men, like dancing, card playing, cigarettes, gambling, movie theaters, Sunday sports, and of course the biggie—divorce.
There was no question in my mind that to even consider officiating in Phil and Karin’s quick marriage would be viewed in this church as an outright encroachment upon a traditional symbol of orthodoxy. To do so this early in my tenure would surely upset many and even lead to my departure. So it was that I made two decisions. The first was not to get blasted by taking on the guardians of the big D question at that time.
The second decision was to launch a love stream of actions that would make certain Phil and Karin knew I wanted to pursue them for future use in God’s Kingdom. They had already met with the Justice of the Peace regarding his services. I encouraged them to follow through. In addition, I told them my wife and I would like to attend their reception. Their delighted smiles assured me that we’d be most welcome. After a brief prayer with them about their future and a friendly hug, they left my office. At the reception I presented them with a gift, a book on building a successful, lasting marriage.
Phil and Karin attended worship regularly and evidenced a very sincere sense of commitment to our Lord. We had many visits together in the months following, and when their first child was born, I had the child’s dedication in our brand new church sanctuary.
There have been several opportunities over the years for me to revisit that church and have some special private time with Phil and Karin and their two fine children. Their walk with God is a joy to observe and hear them express. Phil has been a church board member and a spiritual leader while Karin is an ideal mom and teacher, rejoicing also in marital fulfillment.
There is a bit of spiritual irony to this story regarding how Phil and Karin’s lives had an impact on the destiny of that church. Remember, Phil and Karin’s story began over the question of membership procedure and orthodoxy. The answers I found to those questions on lifestyle and “worldliness” had absolutely nothing to do with the nature of the church, its doctrine, God, or spiritual life. For example, to the question, “Why did you give up smoking” one man had answered, “To join the church.” When I met with him, I asked a follow-up question: “Did the Holy Spirit lead you to do that?” His answer was, “What’s the Holy Spirit?” That interchange indicated a total ignorance of doctrine.
Or how about when I asked, “Was it difficult for you to give up Sunday sports?” The dear middle-aged female sports fan answered, “No, they moved the ball park, so I just quit!” And of course, everyone knew that dancing invariably ends up in fornication. When I had read all the ridiculous answers, I realized what a negative, legalistic bundle of pseudo-spiritual nonsense had been the fare of the anti-worldliness “teaching.” The religious tracts I found on card playing simply blew my mind! I called for a deacons’ meeting immediately.
As I opened the meeting, I remarked how interesting it was to have all these restrictions listed on the application for membership. With tongue in cheek, I also commended them for being so specific. I asked them all to read Colossians 3:5-9 with me, the list of sins like materialism and shameful desires, fornication, coveting, anger, malice, hatred, cursing, filthy language, and lies. As soon as we had finished reading the Scripture, I facetiously suggested that we consider adding those biblical sins to their church list in order to have a more complete listing of all evil. I waited.
Dumbfounded, they all stared at me. It’s easy to sit in judgment on other people’s shortcomings, isn’t it? It’s even easier when your small group has covenanted together to condemn “those” people while overlooking your own “heart problem.” Can you imagine having to seriously sign your name, pledging never to have any of those thoughts or feelings? And, how unfortunate not to consider all of the contrasting positive traits of true Christian character commended in the following verses of that same chapter.
Having made my point rather dramatically, I then asked, “What does a person have to do to join this church?” Several of the application forms were conspicuously lying on my desk in plain sight, just as I had deliberately placed them. An elder then responded, picking up one of the application forms, “You fill out one of these things,” as he quite disrespectfully tossed it away. I began to see hope for a spiritual breakthrough with these men. He then made a motion to adopt a new form to which we all agreed.
We spent time developing the nature, substance, doctrine, and spiritual implications of a new form. I could sense a spirit of unity beginning to emerge within this group whom God provided for me as helpers in discovering and revitalizing what God had for us, rather than spending time looking at and judging other people on the basis of how we perceived their motives.
We began to love and care for the congregation as forgiven fellow believers in our Lord God and co-recipients of His grace through Jesus Christ. I was now ready to announce that I was ready to join the church and stated, “I could not have done so had you upheld that old form.”
Always remember, and never forget, that in the role of pastor, we must not only have love for those in our congregations and communities, but also treat them with patience, gentleness, and self-control.
“Whatever a person is like, I try to find common ground with him so that he will let me tell him about Christ. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some” (St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22).
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, NKJV).