By Jeffrey A. Metzger
Actually, I never left the Christian church. But I did spend almost five years of my life preaching for two denominational churches and working to export my biblical and Restoration principles and understandings. It is also true that eight years ago I left a large denominational church (one of the largest in the denomination) near New York City to start River Hills Christian Church (www.riverhillscc.com) in suburban Cincinnati.
My goals for crossing lines were simple: to make Christ known and to preach and teach the Bible. People everywhere need Jesus. People everywhere deserve to know and live the truth.
But I discovered not every denominational system is always kind to those goals. Here are some things I experienced and learned along the way.
There Are Christians Out There
One of the great Restoration slogans is, “We’re not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and that’s my experience. I found some wonderful brothers and sisters on my denominational sojourns, dear people who truly love Jesus and are committed to the truth of the Bible. So, I didn’t return to our fellowship because I think we are the only Christians.
In fact, I believe the principles of the Restoration Movement are winning the day in most of the evangelical world. The historic Restoration plea, more than anything else, is a plea for Jesus to be Lord. The lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the priesthood of all believers, and the unity of believers are the common themes of almost every evangelical group in existence.
I found many people who are deeply committed to living out these principles in their lives. This is good.
No Book But the Bible
My first denominational experience was in a Presbyterian church. One day the chairman of the elders in that church came into my office. He said, “Jeff, I know you just want to preach the Bible and be a good Christian and that’s fine with us. But in case you ever want to be a good Presbyterian too, you’ll need these.”
Then he plopped a six-inch high stack of books down beside my Bible.
What an impressive object lesson! All I needed to follow Jesus was my inch-thick Bible. I needed an additional four volumes to toe the denominational line. I confess that “No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible” sounded pretty good at that moment.
Waste of Kingdom Resources
I discovered on my journey that denominational structures are pretty good at administering insurance programs, pooling some resources, and providing some support services to the local church. But I also discovered that anytime an outside bureaucracy tries to exercise control in a local church, no matter how well intended, it is a waste of kingdom resources.
One of the joys and strengths of local autonomy is that you are responsible to make good decisions that please the Lord. You must lovingly resolve conflicts according to the principles of Matthew 18. No one person or group can impose a decision from outside.
On one occasion in a denominational setting I was accused of heresy regarding my teaching concerning baptism. We baptized more that 100 people in 18 months by pointing them to Jesus and simply teaching what the Bible had to say regarding baptism. This was new for one man and he took exception to my teaching.
Was his concern addressed within the context of our local church? Not really. I had one conversation on the matter with my accuser. He then went to the denominational authority. I soon was subjected to two levels of a denominational trial designed to decide whether my notions were heretical.
Ultimately a panel of six pastor peers judged me. Not only was my view of baptism judged to be biblical, I was asked to write a paper on the subject.
Here’s the problem. This process ignored biblical principle, took place over a period of months, and consumed the time and energy of leaders from seven different congregations plus the denominational executive. What a waste!
I could give many examples of how precious money, time, and energy were spent on something besides the mission of Jesus. While that can also happen in a local church, it’s a multiplied problem in a hierarchical structure.
This same group also had a one-size-fits-all document mandating the structure of all their local churches in the United States. The Bible gives amazingly little detailed information about the structure and operation of local churches. This document filled in all the missing details and then some. I am sure the intent was to create a measure of uniformity and function from church to church. I am also sure the intent was to ensure denominational control of local churches. The unintended result was that the document imposed a structure effectively designed to keep local churches under control and small. With few exceptions it did its job.
No matter how well intended, denominational structures ultimately become a counterproductive waste of kingdom resources. I’m so glad to be part of a group that recognizes that reality.
Politics or Mission
One of the interesting things about attending a denominational general conference is to see just how political (and boring) those meetings really are. The North American Christian Convention, and similar gatherings in our movement, is incredibly better than you can imagine unless you’ve been to a denominational general meeting. How grateful I am to be part of a group more focused on mission than politics.
Possible vs. Improbable
I realized during my denominational sojourns that change in a local church is very possible. Meaningful change in a denominational system of government is highly improbable.
I know how to love and lead change in a congregation. I know how to outlove and outlast critics and curmudgeons in the local church. I don’t know how to change a denominational system imposed on a church, especially coming in as an outsider. Time and again I found people playing power games and making denomination end runs I didn’t even know existed. That’s not the kingdom of God.
In fact, I found denominational structures highly resistant to change and intent on preserving their power and authority. I don’t know how to deal with that sort of denominational executive. I concluded I didn’t want to learn how to and didn’t have to.
God unmistakably called me to my denominational ministries, and he clearly used me in those settings. But unless he shows up in a burning bush and talks out loud, I don’t ever again expect to serve a denominational church.
Life is too short to waste time fighting unnecessary battles. It is better to use time, energy, and influence where it can do the maximum good for Jesus. For me that place is at home in the context of our Restoration heritage. I am convinced I am in exactly the place God wants me.
Jeff Metzger has preached at River Hills Christian Church, Loveland, Ohio, since 1997.