When Altars Don’t Help

   Many can preach the downside of ‘form without reality’ with regard to spiritual activity.  Examples can be pulled from almost everyone’s experience.  Hypocrisy and insincerity are the two aspects Jesus spoke against with the most feeling.  Well that is to say I cannot imagine Him using the word ‘vipers’ with a rather passive delivery style.

   Pulling from the life of King Saul there is an order of events that played out this way:


  1. Saul fights the Philistines in what appeared to be a losing battle and also fought to maintain loyalty from his people.
  2. Saul’s son Jonathan and an armour-bearer fight and begin to see success in the battle.
  3. Philistines are in retreat and Saul and his army join the pursuit.
  4. Saul makes a vow that says none of his soldiers should eat that day until it is over under the threat of death.
  5. Jonathan does not hear the statement and eats some honey.
  6. Saul learns of this and says his son Jonathan should be killed.
  7. Saul’s soldiers keep Jonathan safe against Saul’s threats.
  8. Saul builds an altar for the first time in his experience as a king.
  9. Saul seeks God’s direction … and he hears only silence from God.

    In the middle of the drama is the building of this altar by Saul, which would be meaningful in most cases, but this may only have been an outward display.  He put much effort into keeping the crown on his head, but his heart is where the work needed to be accomplished.

   Through the years I can remember myself wearing the right attire, saying the right words, or bending my head as if to pray while thinking of other things … displaying a spiritual front while my heart was less than yielding.  My years in the middle of some legalistic structures a couple of decades old trained me to be less than transparent, less than genuine. 

   I think there was still hope for King Saul at the depths of these experiences, but he needed to look inward and upward.  I think there is still hope for me as well. 

   May God give me insight into the forms of my faith where it is not reality.  May I be even more transparent with Him.  Let me not build altars in vain.

Downsides of Autonomy

A Baptist’s treasure is the autonomy of the local church. This is of such high value in some circles that it almost seems sacrilegious to speak of its downsides. From the outset here let me express that I am all for this tenant, but I believe the pendulum swing has left us a bit off-balance.
My denominational role may leave some questioning my motive in writing on this topic. Be that as it may I hear concerns about autonomy coming from pastors and congregants too. It often comes in the form of “the denomination should do … ”, which implies that a function is missing in what independent churches can do by themselves.
My list here of downsides to autonomy will not be complete, but here is a start:

1. The concept values independence, which when taken to the extreme has roots in self-interest. Isn’t this how Adam and Eve got into trouble?
2. The concept when taken to the extreme competes against community. The mindset of independence gone awry has been seen when a board member feels validated for his unique views while he/she stands alone not working with other well-intentioned church leaders.
3. The concept inhibits a group of likeminded churches from speaking as a whole. The question of “who speaks for Baptists” is a tough one to answer at the moment. How do we speak as a group with any authority against unjust laws, inappropriate ethical practices, or errant moral behaviours?
4. The concept taken to the extreme polarizes denominational support from churches. If autonomy is a prime value individual churches unknowingly can position themselves against their denomination. This happens when terms like “we” and “they” are used. This can be noticed when churches look at their budget for giving to the denomination. Terms heard at annual meetings may be “they want …” and “we need …”. Somehow the use of “us” as involved in shared mission is absent.
5. The concept deconstructs accountability systems. Everyone needs accountability. Pastors and board members need to be accountable back to their churches. Churches themselves need to be accountable to other churches. Proper accountability systems ensure correctives against aberrant theology or church practices.

I am sure we would voice together our support for accountability systems and for the building of a Christian community that is meaningfully and intentionally interrelated. We would do this while standing against errant theology and radical self-interest within our churches. As we value “the autonomy of the local church” let us also have this tenant intentionally in balance. In valuing our autonomy let us not inappropriately harbour a spirit of “no one is going to tell me what to do.”

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV).