When the Stiff, Inflexibles Are In Control of the Church

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“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart….”  (Acts 7:51). 

“No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch pulls away from the garment and a worse tear results.  Nor do men put new wine in old wineskins….” (Matthew 9:16-17).

Let’s start with an intriguing quote from a great churchman….

“The church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”  –John Wesley

Not sure of the context of Wesley’s quote, but I like it because it so accurately sums up the situation of a small contingent within every church.  Now, I have to say this conjures up memories of my childhood.  Mom did her own washing and ironing, and often, to starch a shirt or blouse, she would soak it in a bucket into which she had mixed up the dry starch with water. These days, anyone starching at home uses a spray, I expect.

There’s nothing like a great starched shirt.  I love them. Trace Cleaners does mine. My wife loves me but not enough to do that!

Now then, some church members have been starched and ironed before they were washed.  A great metaphor!  But what does it mean?

“Starched and ironed” means they are now–

–prim and proper

–firmly set and fixed in their ways

–but they are missing something essential: An experience with the living God by the blood of Jesus Christ.  Scripture promises “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7).  But these people have bypassed that experience for one reason or the other.

As a result, they are–

–rigid and not flexible.

–pretty but not functional.

–self-righteous but not actually righteous.

–legal but unloving

–pharisaical and proud of it.

They have convictions and plenty of them.  Unfortunately, none that have anything to do with grace, but everything to do with law–with rules and regulations, with prohibitions and requirements, expectations and qualifications.

Pity the church that has the unwashed inflexible in leadership positions.

Anyone wondering why and how this could happen should pay more attention to the ways of humanity.  It’s not leadership qualities you have to demonstrate in order to be elected to a place of authority; it’s strong convictions about things. Even if those convictions are wrong-headed.  The fact that you speak up and speak out and take a stand convinces the weak and passive among the membership that you are a force to be reckoned with. Since no one else wants the job, it’s yours.

That’s how it happens that pastors end up having to deal with boards and committees and officers who are opposed to anything having to do with grace.  They are fiercely opposed to what they consider weakness in the more spiritually minded, and “intend to put this church on a firm business-like basis.”

Before they will help the needy, all kinds of requirements must be met. Before you can join their church, you must agree to a long list.  Before you can be elected to anything, there are plenty of hurdles you must surmount.

When the unwashed inflexible are in control, God help the church.

People who have been starched and ironed before they were washed have no compassion for the needy of the world, no vision for the unreached of their community, and no patience with the compassionate visionairies who do!

What are the godly to do when the church is being controlled by the unwashed inflexible? 

It all starts with the pastor–and never gets far away from him.  That is, he must give strong leadership under the Holy Spirit from A to Z if the church is to be wrested away from the death grip of the inflexibly unwashed.

1) The pastor has to know who the people of faith are and spend a great deal of time with them.

2) The pastor has to be a person of prayer, and sometimes fasting.  If he is not, little of any importance is going to happen.

3) The pastor must be willing to pay a personal price to unseat the unwashed inflexible from positions of leadership.

4) The “unwashed inflexible” will not go quietly. If the pastor and other leaders are not courageous enough to face the attack these people can mount, nothing will change.  Lest readers are prone to take these people too lightly, I recommend reading Numbers 16.  Verse 2 calls the group rebelling against Moses’ leadership “men of renown.”  They were people to be reckoned with.  Only determined leaders looking to the Holy Spirit can win this struggle.

5) When they leave the church–as they will if the pastor and his faithful helpers will stay the course–they will take with them other members and whatever finances they control. So, things will get worse before they get better.  Godly leaders must see this as a necessary step for the church to get healthy.  Weaker leaders will see the lesser numbers and budget problems as proof they erred in forcing these people out.

6) By forcing the “unwashed inflexible” to make a decision–go along with the faith-filled leaders or leave–several things are happening….

–The leadership is showing them tough love.  You are not hating them, but demonstrating authentic righteousness.  It goes without saying–almost–that everything you do regarding them should be in kindness and Christlikeness. Even in resisting them and pointing out their errors, you can be both kind and firm.

–The great majority of the membership is watching this dispassionately at first (they did not know what it was all about) and but will rally around the pastoral team as soon as they realize they could end up with a healthy church.

–Only this kind of radical surgery can save the patient, the Lord’s church. Otherwise, it remains good looking on the outside but with a deadly cancer on the inside.

A final caution…

Churches must exercise great care in choosing leaders to make sure those who become deacons and committee members and other key leaders are solid blood-washed believers filled with a balance of grace and truth (see John 1:14). Truth keeps them doing right, but grace makes them merciful and gracious. (Clarification: truth refers to doctrine, knowledge of the Word.  Grace refers to one’s attitude toward everyone, but particularly to the undeserving and fallen.)

How do you find out these things about prospective leaders? Pay attention. Listen closely. Ask around. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you discernment. “Lay hands on no one suddenly,” says I Timothy 5:22.

Do not be put off by the beautiful exterior (including the starched shirts!).  Listen for two things: An appreciation of the mercy of God in saving a sinner like himself, and a graciousness toward everyone else around him.  (See what Isaiah said in Isa. 6:5.)

“Dear Lord, bless your church, please.”

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