May 28, 2004

To the members of the Denver Church of Christ,

In 1986, I moved to Denver from the Chicago area to help start the Denver Church of Christ (DCC). Over the last eighteen years, I have devoted myself to the advancement and well being of the congregation. Like so many of you, I have been pleased to serve in various capacities. Some of these roles include small group leader, ministry intern (having led the planting of the Colorado Springs house church, which in time became the Colorado Springs Christian church), regional financial administrator, regional HOPE coordinator, Kid’s Kingdom head teacher, regional worship coordinator and regional deacon of teaching.

I have also carried on a writing ministry, running the Barnabas Ministry website (http://www.barnabasministry.com) for the last five years and having written the book “Keeping the Faith.” A lifelong student of church history, practices and theology, I have defended our church against unfair criticisms on public discussion forums and sought to educate and inform outsiders, leaders and members alike to the best of my ability and training.

I have enjoyed many personal blessings as part of my involvement here, including meeting my wife and the birth of my children. I have been blessed to develop numerous great relationships over the years.

However, after months of prayerful consideration, I have decided to resign as South Region Deacon of Teaching and as a member of the DCC. As I have wrestled with this decision, I have also wrestled with the decision to disclose the reasons for my departure.  Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke discussed the details of the sharp dispute and parting of the ways between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39) without condemning either of them. To me, it seems Scriptural and beneficial to attempt to do the same here.

Some may perceive what I have written here as an attack, though it is not intended as such. Others may use this in a partisan manner to attack me or somebody else. On the other hand, my silence would open the door for damaging speculation and gossip. In the end, as someone who is a founding member of this congregation, who has spoken out broadly in defense of this church and movement for many years—I cannot just walk away without saying why. I will not allow the potential misuse of this information to lead to my silence, just as God has not allowed the possible misuse of his words to prevent Him from speaking. These issues are important and need to be understood.

What follows, then, is a short discussion of my understanding the differences of perspective that I have with the current direction of the DCC. This is not a comprehensive list of differences, nor is it intended to be a thorough exposition of the issues being discussed. I mention these things to help explain why I have resigned as a deacon and member of the DCC.

Performance-Oriented Theology
In my perspective, the DCC has long practiced a performance-oriented theology, driven by its historic reactions against the “traditional” churches of Christ and centered around what I consider to be a well-intentioned but distorted concept of discipleship.

In this theology, man’s purpose in life is to please God with his works. Discipleship is the price of salvation. Yet, there are always more works to do, and man is never, ever good enough. The DCC would not explicitly teach that man is saved by works because the concept is patently absurd, but this is pretty much what is practiced. For example, conversion (as taught in First Principles) focuses almost exclusively on human performance with scant mention of the notion of grace or salvation. The ministry focuses on what we are “supposed to do,” as though that were the essence of the Christian experience. In our preaching, Jesus is rarely presented as a Divine Savior; far more frequently he is presented as a “perfect disciple.” The idea is advanced that if we just tried hard enough, we too could be perfect just like Jesus. Righteousness is something that is attained by trying harder, not the result of salvation. In my opinion, such a philosophy is at odds with passages such as 1 John 1:8 and Romans 7:21-25.

Performance-oriented theology brings a host of unhealthy side effects, most notably the pride and boasting in what one does, especially in favorite areas of religious performance. It makes certain works better than others, certain people better than others. It creates a false sense of entitlement and spiritual security for those who play the game well, and a corresponding false sense of guilt for those who don’t play the game quite so well.

Performance-oriented theology produces nice results for a short time, but it robs the cross of its power and meaning. In the end, it leaves people destroyed spiritually. (Not surprisingly, we then turn around and blame them for being destroyed. That’s like murdering someone and then blaming them for being dead.) I am persuaded that people don’t need to be told how they constantly fall short of perfection and God’s standards; they face this every day. What they need to know is that God wants a relationship with them and that he can work through their imperfections by his Spirit to accomplish his works in their lives anyway.

In my opinion, this performance-orientation issue permeates the DCC culture like toxic waste oozing from beneath the surface. It is everywhere, and it is insidious. Getting rid of it will not be easy for those who have lived under it and perpetuated it for many years.  How much harder it will be for those who do not see its shortcomings or are enthralled with its short-term results.

Leader-Centric Ministry Approach
In my perspective, the DCC ministry model is fundamentally leader-centric. Things revolve around a leader, especially region-leader evangelists. I believe the Scriptures testify more to a Jesus-centered and body-centered (or sheep-centered) model.

 In a leader-centered model, things are seen from a leadership point of view, and the leader must make things happen. Along with this come the undesirable side effects of control, favoritism, reliance upon personality and hype to extend the abilities and limits of leadership. Under such a model, the members never really mature but remain spiritual children to the leadership. In the end, the sheep end up serving the leaders. Then the leaders are expected to live up to the position they’re in, and resent it when people expect them to be perfect.

A sheep-centered model looks at things from the point of view of the sheep and how to develop and mobilize church resources for the benefit of the sheep. The ministry serves the sheep, for their benefit—just like Jesus who came for our benefit, not for his. A Jesus-centered model looks to him to make things happen. It is willing to accept his agenda, his timing, his working, and not the arbitrary goals of leaders who are eager to make a name for themselves or prove themselves worthy of greater roles in the church. A great example of this sort of a ministry is Paul’s summary of his ministry in Colossians 1:24-2:3.

We’ve seen the failings of a leader-centric approach first-hand, yet the DCC still seems entrenched in a leader-centric ministry approach. Leaders are important, but we would do well to remember that they are usually referred to in Scripture as “servants.” Does the name itself not suggest the model that should be used?

The Role of the Body in Decision-Making
I believe God equips the entire body of Christ for the good of the body. He gives each of us different gifts, experiences, perspectives, personalities and circumstances in life for the good of the body.  The body is to be equipped to minister to itself (Ephesians 4:12-13, 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, etc.).  The body is also to be involved in shaping the values and direction of the church. This is seen in the early history of the apostolic church (Acts 6:1ff, 11:29, 15:22, etc.).

By contrast, our leader-centric model moves all significant discussion and decision-making to an oligarchy of elders and evangelists. One terrible side effect of this is that mature opinions and perspectives, needed for the health of the body but possessed by those not in the inner circle, are cast aside instead of being integrated into the values of the church. There are other detrimental side effects to this approach, including the lack of accountability.

One would think that with all of the issues facing the church in the last eighteen months, it would be an ideal time to appoint more elders, involve the deacons, and seek wisdom from all over the body of Christ, especially the more mature and experienced members. The DCC is a very diverse body that God has equipped with many great hearted and talented people for the benefit of the body.  I’m not talking about a democracy; there is a place for leaders making decisions. But the way we do things suggests that the leaders think that wisdom only resides in themselves and others they consider worthy, but not the body as a whole. I strongly disagree with this approach.

Differing Perspectives not Wanted
The message being communicated to members with differing opinions and perspectives is, “This is the way it is going to be. If you don’t like it, leave.” I just don’t see that spirit in Acts 6. Biblical unity is not reached by marginalizing those who disagree, or by telling everyone to agree with the leaders. Yet this is the only sort of unity of which we seem to be capable, as those with valid Scriptural positions contrary to the leadership are expected to conform (a warped concept of “being united”), don’t talk about it, or else be marginalized. In the end, the church throws away something it desperately needs.

The DCC made historic strides last year in having public “town meetings.” These were chances for all members of the various regions and ministries to voice concerns or questions to the body and to the leadership. It was a chance for the church to value the perspectives of one another and allow them to shape our collective values. It was the best thing that has happened in the DCC in more than a decade, in my opinion. Last year, the DCC leadership committed to continuing these, but later went back on that commitment in the interest of having more two-way conversations with smaller groups. 

Two-way conversations in small groups can be beneficial. However, the end result of this change is that the smaller meetings still leave people isolated and uninformed about what’s going on and what other people think. Acts 6 shows a church-wide problem, and church-wide involvement towards a solution. The current practice of the DCC discourages healthy, beneficial discussion. Instead of things being done in the open, we now appear to have things going on behind closed doors again.  Those who question what goes on can be told how “uninformed” and “isolated” they are, which of course makes them “incompetent” to contribute to the solution.

This huge step backwards in communications greatly troubles me. While the leadership and membership certainly “may” do things this way within the limits of Scripture, it opens the door to a host of negatives. A short list of these includes favoritism, politics, uncertainty and speculation about why decisions were made, eliminating checks and balances, allowing the leadership opportunity to speak out of both sides of its mouth depending upon the audience, and the like. I do not consider keeping people in the dark about what is going on a healthy way to conduct the business of the church.

Another method that has been established to address some of these issues is the “open door policy”-- directly questioning the leadership, but privately. This may be well-intentioned and beneficial in many areas, but ends up serving as an intimidating gauntlet that discourages questioning in sensitive areas—the very areas that need the most openness and accountability. It allows those with questions to be identified and dealt with in an unhealthy way—having their motives questioned, challenging their hearts, loyalty, spirituality, and the like. Most people would rather have their questions unanswered than deal with that. Considering our history I do not think this is a healthy way to conduct the operations of the church. Isn’t it easier to just be up-front and open about things?

The Pulpit
I am gravely disappointed in the use of the pulpit in the DCC. Sermons generally consist of anecdotes, motivational-speaking hype (“you’re guilty,” “try harder”) and stand-up comedy with a little Scripture thrown in. Minor talks (e.g. welcomes, introductions to contribution, etc.) are frequently little “soapbox” sessions for people to express their pet ideas or support for the leadership. Opinions and anecdotes are given an official platform, regardless of how Scriptural they might be or how much they have to do with the matter at hand.  Those with known differing opinions are not given these same opportunities.

Sermons seem to be valued if they are loud, fast-talking and energetic in their manner, regardless of the substance. Scripturally, speaking in the church is for the purpose of teaching and encouraging the saints in Christian doctrine (Titus 2:7, 2:15). I find DCC sermons consistently a failure in this regard.

I realize that some people love the sermons the way they are. And I’m not saying preachers can’t tell a joke or an anecdote now and then. But what are you going to do when you need real Scriptural answers to issues in your life? Are feel-good sermons, jokes and anecdotes going to provide a basis for your spiritual life in times of trial? Can hype last through the whole week until you get your next dose? A steady diet of spiritual Twinkies leads to spiritually unhealthy people in the end. I’ve seen this over the years, and it is still being perpetuated. It violates my conscience to witness this on a weekly basis.

Inadequate Training of Leadership
My wife recently received her M.A. degree from Denver Seminary. One of the seminary’s core values is the idea of “knowing, being and doing.” It views its task as a threefold effort-- to equip leaders with knowledge and information, to emphasize individual character and relationship with God, and to prepare leaders to do the work of the ministry.

The DCC/ICC approach has been seriously deficient in the "knowing” and “being” areas, in keeping with the performance-oriented theology that is part and parcel of our existence. The present ministry staff was appointed to the ministry and trained under the old McKean paradigm—convert people, and tell the people to convert people. Whenever a problem comes up, baptize your way out of it. This is what was taught.  They were indoctrinated in it over a span of many years, just as many of us were.

While evangelism and perseverance are necessary and beneficial, there is far more to spiritual leadership than controlling the environment, generating enthusiasm and pushing performance. In the important areas of knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) and personal spiritual development (1 Timothy 4:7, 2 Peter 1:3-7), we have been seriously deficient. The staff cannot lead where they have not been.  A weekend-training class here and there, while potentially helpful in exposing the brothers to new ideas, isn’t going to get the job done, either—especially if these are conducted by others with the same performance-oriented legacy. These brothers have been indoctrinated in the old paradigm for years and aren’t going to undo that in a few weekends a year. They may be sincere and want to do what is right—but they are groping for direction and are ill equipped for the task at hand. And more importantly—where is this needed training going to come from?

It is natural to love and defend one’s leaders, in spite of their deficiencies. We all have deficiencies, and I am not graceless towards them-- I’ve been providing them resources for years. But for a church that relies upon leadership as much as the DCC does, and faces the problems it faces, it must have leadership suitable to the task at hand. If my car breaks down, I don’t take it to one of my friends to fix it, I take it to someone trained and competent for the job. This is not about love for leaders as individuals; it is about what “knowing and being” is needed to care for the sheep of the DCC.

The Dilemma
Over the last several years I’ve tried to address these and other issues in numerous ways. Those well-intentioned souls who want me to “remain and help the church change” (a phrase I’ve said to many others in my position before!) must recognize that I’ve been prayerfully trying this for years. I’ve done hundreds of hours of research, written papers, recommended books (and given quite a few away to leaders in the hopes that they would help broaden their perspectives), identified beneficial resources, engaged in numerous discussions-- all to little or no avail concerning these issues.

The time has come to face some facts.  My input has not often been valued or heeded by the leadership, especially recently. I have been treated with suspicion and mistrust by the leadership. In these key areas I’ve identified (and others not included in this letter), I don’t see the opinions of the elders and evangelists changing, no matter how much they are discussed or what other superficial changes have been made. Trying to bring about change in such weighty matters so integral to the identity of the church and the leadership under these circumstances can only lead to frustration and fighting that damages individuals, relationships and perhaps even the church at large.

For the last several months, I have faced a dilemma. I can violate my conscience and remain in the DCC, or I can relieve my conscience and leave. There are no other options. None of us can violate our consciences for long without dire consequences. I cannot continue to violate my conscience by remaining in this environment. Therefore I am choosing to leave, and I expect to find myself in another restoration-movement fellowship. There is no such thing as a perfect church, but I am confident I’ll find one more aligned with my understanding of the Scriptures.

I respect the leader’s freedom to act as they see fit (no matter how misguided or damaging I consider it to be), but I hope they respect my freedom to seek a fellowship more in line with my understanding of the Scriptures and conscience. I plead with the elders of the DCC to step back and see the harm happening to the sheep because of the issues I’ve raised.

I hope to preserve and maintain relationships with many of you, and I have no desire to harm the DCC. The Scriptures provide numerous examples of people separating under circumstances such as these—Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), Lot and Abraham (Genesis 13:11). God has called us to peace (Colossians 3:15) but also to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28)—a work that requires separation from what is familiar and venture into that which is unknown. I shall seek that peace and God’s destiny for my life in another fellowship. May God be with us all.

With Love In Christ,

John Engler

Link to Pat Engler's letter

Copyright © 1999-2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

Send a letter to the editor concerning this article