Preferences and the Church
We will never find joy in church membership when we are constantly seeking things our way. But paradoxically, we will find the greatest joy when we choose to be last. That's what Jesus meant when He said the last will be first. True joy means giving up our rights and preferences and serving everyone else. -Thom S. Rainer
If you were to look around at the statements of faith and the "what we believe" pages on church websites in your area, it would seem that many churches and church leaders have written off primary theological and ecclesiological doctrines as “preferences” in our day.
Preferences as Doctrine
In western evangelicalism, there are a multitude of genres and styles when it comes to almost anything. We have preferences for preaching and music, for decorations and lighting. We have preferences for when things start and for how long they run. We have an overstimulation of option when it comes to how and which things happen in regards to the church and specifically to the Sunday gathering.
You can see how this could be troublesome within Christianity, something that is organized and supposed to be carried out accounting to scripture, an inherently objective standard. Christianity is an institution where God, in almost every respect, intimately lays out for us how and why we should act and what or how we should think.
I am not saying that every single aspect of our day to day should be measured against a strict set of Biblical standards. For instance, we don’t need to look to Scripture when choosing what color shirt we should wear or what breakfast we should make. What I am saying is that where the Bible is direct in its imperatives we MUST follow it.
(For a deeper look at this idea here is a piece on the normative vs regulative principle.)
So where do we draw lines? When do we sacrifice our preference? How do we determine when our feelings about something become a problem, specifically in the Church? Obviously preference aren’t bad! Our varying desires for beauty and creativity are nuanced by our experiences and our surroundings and, to a certain extent, are unavoidable.
Imagine this: You had only heard Mozart your entire life, even learned to recite it on the piano, but then one day someone comes along and plays you a song of the 80's hairband genre… No matter if your reaction was positive or negative, you would feel very strongly about this brand new sound that you have been exposed to. Your preference, which would have been dramatically influenced by all the Mozart you had been accustomed to up to that point, would have been challenged and either you would react with curiosity towards the new sound or you would react adversely. That is not a good or bad thing necessarily, it is simply what you have come to like or dislike based on your previous exposures and influences.
But when we examine the place of preference within the people of God we must acknowledge that there is an objective standard that we MUST measure our preference against. Preferences are fine and even welcomed! But only as much as they do not encroach on the truth of God’s Word.
A preference that is set against the truth of God is like a stray ember from a fire smoldering in a forest. If it is not swiftly snuffed out it is likely to catch the dry blades of grass it falls upon and then the brittle bark of the surrounding trees and soon after the forest as a whole.
The Forest Fire (1505 AD) by Piero di Cosimo
A peripheral preference that has no regard for God is likely to reach out and set ablaze other, more prominent, beliefs. For example: Your desire for only traditional hymns is not necessarily bad, but if you are spiritually unable to worship with the people of God, with true and faithful words set to a new tune or played by a modern band, because of your adversity to that musical style, then your "harmless" preference has effectively caused you to sin.
Another example would be a family leaving the covenant relationship they entered into with their church because of their preference that the church should offer child care to a later age. The Bible does not demand "childcare options" for Sunday mornings, therefore you have no scriptural grounds to break your covenant relationship with that family over that specific frustration.
There are a number of ways that our personal preferences, if not constantly brought back to the word of God for examination, can cause us to sin inwardly, and worse than that, to sin outwardly against our brothers and sisters.
Doctrine as Preferences
However, the elevation of personal preference to primary issues is not the most threatening thing in our churches today, rather, it is the turning of primary doctrinal issues into preferences that will be the worst outcome of this sort of foolishness. In other words, we have begun to use the word “preference” when referring to certain ministry philosophies when we should be using the words "obedience to God" . Bad pastors and complacent churchgoers have dragged sound doctrine down from the pedestal that Scripture puts it on and have dismissed its implications.
Cowardly Pastors, not wanting to die on noble hills, have boiled down these primary issue to nothing more than the faint echoes of zealous reformers. "It's not practical to do it that way anymore" they will say, as if pragmatism is now the standard we are to use to measure whether or not our ministries are faithful.(???)
Here are some examples of things that many people would consider to be a preference but are actually Biblical standards that must be upheld, regardless of preference, in order to maintain the purity of the Church according to Scripture.
A strong belief that preaching should be cross and gospel centered is not a preference, it’s obedience to God.
A strong belief that our musical worship should be cross and gospel centered is not a preference, it’s obedience to God.
A strong belief that elders should live up to and be held to the Biblical standard of eldership is not a preference, it’s obedience to God.
A strong belief that Christians should be regularly and unashamedly confessing and repenting of sin is not a preference, it’s obedience to God.
A strong belief that the corporate expression of the church on a Sunday morning shouldn’t be a performance is not a preference, its obedience to God.
A strong belief that the Bible should be the foundation of a churches “ministry philosophy” is not a preference, its obedience to God.
Demotion of these things from obedience to God to mere preferences is only the beginning of the problems that will plague churches that fail to hold fast to them faithfully. If your leaders are cheapening the things that the Bible claims to be priceless, you need to find new leaders that will cherish the commands of God and teach you to cherish them as well.
Hope in the Faithfulness of Christ
Our hearts are wicked (Jer 17:9-10), therefore we should not trust the natural preferences that arise out of them. When choosing a church or a worship playlist or a podcast to throw on, dont think "what do I want?" rather, think "what is it that God would have for me?".
Now the beautiful thing about all this is that when you are being "conformed to the image of Christ" (Rom 8:29) your preferences will (slowly) begin to look more and more Christ-like. This means that if someone is a true believer, if they are in the Word and in the Body, their preferences will naturally and progressively become holier. They will desire sound doctrine. They will crave godly leadership and rejoice in submission to it. Their days will be filled with community in the Body and time in prayer. In the believer, you will see old unfruitful habits die off. You will see in them a separation from worldly passions, and their preferences towards things that are foolish will begin to fade.
This is a glorious truth:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4
The "things on earth" that Paul is talking about here do not just apply to open and outright sins that we should obviously flee from. The things that are "on earth" include disregard for sound doctrine - Set your mind on Christ! The things "on earth" include apathy towards consistent fellowship with the believers - Set you mind on Christ! The things "on earth" include not calling out sin in a brother - Set your mind on Christ!
Set your mind on Christ, the things that are above, and you will remain steady in our world of evershifting preference and self indulgence. Mortify the old self and cling to Him who has made you new, throwing off every non-God-glorifying preference, every weight, so that you might run hard after Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria