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The Crying Need for Balance

By Richard L. Dresselhaus

In a healthy church the pendulum is allowed to swing within carefully defined biblical and doctrinal limits. Extremes are avoided, yet diversity is both allowed and welcomed.

The church has never been so threatened by imbalance as today. Sadly, some churches are being torn to pieces over peripheral issues. For example, a pastor visits a conference where he is introduced to new methods, teachings, and experiences. To the dismay of some and the delight of others, those things are introduced at home. The result is division. The body of Christ is fractured.

No church’s leadership is able to steer clear of all the diversity that relates to focus, style, temperament, and taste. My real concern is not to suggest that we reject diversity and require uniformity but that we learn how to live positively with our differences. Some sincere Spirit-filled believers in our churches do not have the relational skills and the attitudinal maturity to work through the maze of this ever-increasing diversity. When a new style is introduced or a change is proposed, they do not know how to deal with the inner conflict they feel. Sometimes, out of desperation, they just leave. Although they regret the decision, they choose it above staying in the church and continuing to feel the disaffection which those changes have produced. They do not know how to handle the pain they feel.

How can we keep people together who are not the same? How can people serve the Lord with joy in the midst of diversity?

A study of Acts 2:42–47, which describes the relational life of the Early Church, shows they faced some of the same challenges we face. By looking carefully, we can discover the critical balance points which, if properly understood, can move us toward unity in our churches.

Picture a pendulum. Its broad sweep represents extremes, but its more limited sweep represents acceptable parameters where we live as members together in the body of Christ.

That is, there is a swing in the relational pendulum that is within biblical and doctrinal limits. If we face issues that relate to diversity with this understanding, we can avoid the harmful extremes and grant to our brothers and sisters in the church a measure of latitude. Comprehension of this allowable latitude is the key to unity in the church.

In fact, if the pendulum is not allowed any swing, the resulting attitude and spirit is one that is cultic. Cult leaders demand that everyone be like them. They allow no diversity, either in thought or conduct. Conversely, in a healthy church the pendulum is allowed to swing within carefully defined biblical and doctrinal limits. Extremes are avoided, yet diversity is both allowed and welcomed.

Here is how it works: If one brother feels he cannot really worship without standing, and another brother tires easily and wants to be seated, they meet in the middle—a little standing and a little sitting. Both are asked to yield their personal desires for the mutual benefit of each other. That is the spirit of the principle here.

Perhaps a more critical matter is holy laughter: Is it normative for the Spirit-filled believer and a verifiable mark of spiritual depth, or is it incidental and occasional? How is this difference to be resolved? What is being advocated here is that everyone be sensitive to others’ well-being. Those who wish to laugh should seek for occasions when that release to God’s presence in their lives will not be disruptive to others. On the other hand, those who at best only tolerate the practice should not allow their intolerance to be a discouragement and hindrance.

When this principle of tolerance within biblical and doctrinal limits is practiced, the church becomes healthy and strong in its life together. In fact, this presence of diversity moves the church toward balance. If dissenters leave the church, then imbalance is fostered by their absence. When we stay together in the face of our differences, we begin to deal with the real issues of our self-serving spirits.

Spare me from a church without diversity, where the pendulum is allowed no room to swing, where intolerance is absolute. This setting will stymie personal creativity, destroy initiative, and quench the Spirit of the Lord. Sadly, despite such dreadful consequences, some leaders make that demand and work toward its reality.

I have repeatedly reminded the church I pastor that we are a "general practitioner" church. We seek to have something for everyone but not everything for anybody. If you want a steady diet of highly expressive and protracted worship, you will not typically find it at our church. If you want a single emphasis on the miraculous, you may be disappointed at our church. If you want peak-level inspiration at every service, you will probably pass us by. But if you want a balance of all these good things, you may be willing to give us a try. This is God’s will for us.

To appreciate a "general practitioner" church, you must make a strong commitment to your neighbors. Their spiritual welfare is critically important to you. You are willing to sacrifice some of your comfort and preference so they are served and feel good about their place in the church. It must grieve our Lord when we mix intolerance with love, judgmentalism with grace, and greed with mercy.

Consider the description of the relational life of the Early Church in Acts 2:42–47. By considering their life together, we can discover the critical balance points which, if properly observed, can contribute to greater unity in our churches.

Legalism and Antinomianism (Law and Grace)

This apostolic church "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching" (Acts 2:42*). What was this teaching? I suggest that it had to do primarily with the tension between law and grace. It was a transitional message intended to move Jewish people from the demands of the Law to the provisions of grace. Not an easy one. What about circumcision? Sacred days? Jewish ceremonies? This was one big leap for devout Jews.

You can feel the tension when you read the Epistles. In Galatians, Paul contrasted Ishmael, the son of the flesh, and Isaac, the son of promise; or Mount Sinai in contrast to Mount Zion. Metaphors point to transition and change. The old must now yield to the new. Law must give way to grace. This was the apostles’ teaching.

What do we learn from this? Let’s go back to the pendulum. In the extremes of legalism you find rigid rules, a spirit of dogmatism, multiple demands, and a host of regulations. To the extreme of grace (antinomianism), you find an attitude of easy believism, cheap grace, indiscriminate tolerance, and a good deal of license.

This tension point is still present in the church. Some demonstrate a spirit of dogmatism and rigidity on everything from style of music to the way the parking lot is marked. Others go to the opposite extreme—tolerant to a fault. For them, expediency rules the day. Compromise is never a problem.

Follow carefully: The pendulum must not be allowed to swing beyond biblical and doctrinal limits. But within that allowable swing there can be acceptance of those with whom we disagree. In this environment of tolerance a church is able to find a wonderful balance. Legalistic people are drawn toward law. Antinomian people are drawn toward grace. In the balance the true spirit of fellowship is fostered and lived out.

Emotionalism and Intellectualism (Mind and Spirit)

The Early Church (Acts 2:42–47) broke bread together, prayed together, experienced the miraculous, and ate with glad and sincere hearts—a blend of intellectualism and emotionalism. These same believers continued in the teaching of the apostles (mind), and they experienced this marvelous life together (emotion).

We see the same contrast in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus said that worship must be in spirit (emotion) and in truth (intellect) (John 4:23). Paul said that prayers are to be offered in spirit (emotion) and in truth (intellect) (1 Corinthians 14:15). On the emotional side of this tension point you will find high inspiration, the downplay of education, spirited preaching, great expression in worship, diminished emphasis on doctrine, and a commitment to spontaneity. On the intellectual end of the pendulum’s swing you will find the highly predictable, the formal and dignified, tight controls in worship, strong emphasis on education, and little sense of spontaneity.

This tension point most frequently drives a wedge between the pews of our churches. Those who are more emotionally oriented view with a measure of suspicion those who are more formally trained. The well educated tend to look with a sense of condescension at those who are less educated. These attitudes have no place in the church.

Neither persuasion is wrong, and neither is right. The call is for balance. The lettered should regard themselves as unlettered, and the uneducated should regard themselves as educated. This spirit of humility, preferring others above ourselves, brings us all together to meet on the level ground in front of the cross.

This tension is felt strongly on a denominational level. Listen to the debate on the General Council floor when issues surface that have to do with education, and you will see how acute it really is. Does this mean that one emphasis is right and the other is wrong? Not at all. Jesus calls us all to bring our specific gifts and our particular backgrounds to Him for full utilization in His kingdom. We must not separate ourselves from one another, but instead, allow ourselves to be drawn toward a place of balance through others’ influence.

It is sad when a narrow focus robs us of the richness that diversity can provide. You can count on it: Truth rests in balance—balance as in that territory between biblical and doctrinal parameters.

Evangelism and Societalism (Winning the Lost and Caring for the Needy)

In the Early Church "all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44,45). This points to a specific response to pressing social needs. But the passage concludes, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (verse 47). Here was a specific response to the Great Commission—the focus was on evangelism.

The Early Church struck a balance between evangelism and societalism. They cared for the needy, yet they carried on the work of evangelism. This is the reason behind the incredible growth of the first-century church.

The same challenge is before us. If we as a Fellowship are going to discharge our divine call today, it is imperative that we strike a balance between these two competing poles. We must care for the needy and evangelize the world. Resources in personnel and finance must be expended in ways that we provide a proper focus on both. Imbalance will distort our vision and squander our resources.

On the societal side of the pendulum’s swing you have an emphasis upon hospital construction, feeding programs, educational efforts, relief projects, and crusades for social justice. On the evangelism side you have a focus on citywide campaigns, literature penetration, media ministries, and a variety of training programs designed to equip people to win the lost.

Some have disapprovingly suggested that the Assemblies of God has historically been guilty of neglecting the needs of the poor and broken to maintain a narrow focus of evangelism. Further, they have seen in the Holiness movement, of which we are a part, a reaction against the social gospel to the exclusion of social action.

What are we to say in response to this charge? There should never be an apology for the dynamic evangelistic thrust of the Assemblies of God. Rightly, we have seen evangelism as the supreme mission of the Church.

However, in recent years, a concerted effort has been made to move toward a proper response to human need without altering our focus on evangelism. HealthCare Ministries is a case in point. Responding to human need, teams of dedicated professionals go into needy areas where they dispense medicines, perform surgeries, and offer help for many physical needs. This opens the door for the gospel to be proclaimed and God’s healing power to be displayed.

Here is the balance: We must respond to social need whenever and wherever it is found, but we must go on to see in that response an opportunity to bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus, the ultimate purposes of evangelism are reached while, at the same time, there is a specific response to pressing human need.

Over the centuries the church has struggled with this balance point. It has gradually moved away from evangelism and devoted itself instead to social action. This imbalance is a major reason so much of the world is still unevangelized. The call is for a simple focus on evangelism without excluding human need. The two were never intended to be exclusive of one another.

If the Assemblies of God is to fulfill its worldwide mission, it must accelerate its efforts to win the lost but not miss an opportunity to reach out in loving concern to a hurting world also. This kind of balance will carry us to the ends of the earth in a soul-saving mission that will bring health and healing to the lost and broken of this world.

Traditionalism and Novelism (The Old Ways and the New)

It is fascinating to observe that the Early Church continued in the ways consistent with tradition while, at the same time, embracing the new ways open to them through the gospel. "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts [tradition]. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts [novelism]" (Acts 2:46).

They moved from the temple to the home church, from the formal to the informal, from Jewish custom to Christian practice. Theirs was a wonderful balance between the old and the new, the traditional and the novel.

Tradition calls for the retention of the past with its inviting security, comfort, and familiarity. The novel invites the new, the adventurous, the contemporary, and the experimental.

The point of incredible conflict in our churches is here. Should we use hymns or choruses? Sit or stand when we worship? Use organ and piano or guitars and drums? Use the King James or the New International Version? The issues are too numerous to mention, but these are the kinds of issues that divide the people of God—the tension between what is traditional and what is novel.

Admittedly, we will always have great diversity on issues of the traditional and the novel. However, our goal should not be the disallowance of diversity but the accommodation of diversity within biblical and theological parameters. In fact, the presence of legitimate diversity moves us all to a more appropriate and biblical place of balance. Sadly, some people lack the relational skills and the spiritual maturity to live together harmoniously while serving side by side in an environment that includes diversity. We must learn to love and appreciate people who are different in style, opinion, tradition, and interest.

What is the appeal of this article? That each of us understands what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus as we live together in the body of Christ. That each of us develops the spiritual maturity to love, honor, and respect other members with whom we may disagree. That all of us must be willing to work with the legitimate diversity within the parameters of biblical truth. That we understand the positive benefits of living out personal conviction in the context of diversity so the Body might move more and more toward the kind of balance that will create unity and wholeness.

If our churches are going to fulfill their God-given mission today, they must maintain a solid commitment to balance.

Solomon had it right: "The man who fears God will avoid all extremes" (Ecclesiastes 7:18).

*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

RICHARD L. DRESSELHAUS, D.Min., is an executive presbyter and former senior pastor, First Assembly of God, San Diego, California.


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