Trade Barriers in the Church

March 10, 2008

“Protectionism in all its guises, both domestic and international does not contribute to the welfare of American workers. At best, it is a short-term fix at a cost of lower standards of living for the nation as a whole.” — Alan Greenspan (2002)

Alan Greenspan, highly respected former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, has been a long time critic of protectionism — the practice of limiting foreign competition by erecting barriers to trade (tarrifs, quotas, subsidies, etc). Economists generally agree that trade which is free from such barriers produces benefits to the economies of both parties in the trading relationship. As Greenspan noted in the above quote, protectionism may appear to produce short term benefits, but actually leads to the long term detriment of those whom it was supposed to benefit.

Perhaps the same could be said about the “economies” of churches. Churches that share the same core doctrine about salvation often find themselves applying similar protectionist policies to retain their members.

For better or worse, there is a perceived competition among churches for members. In a given community, there may be many churches. Members in each of these churches could choose to attend whichever church they want. Since the viability of each congregation depends on its ability to retain its members, there is a built-in incentive for church leaders (especially full-time salaried leaders) to create barriers to keep people from leaving their congregation for another.

Sometimes, the barrier of choice is to convince members that the other churches are inferior. A church may accomplish this by emphasizing any existing (or imagined) doctrinal differences, or by creating the impression (whether true or false) that other churches are less committed, or have other spiritual deficiencies. By doing so, they attempt to deter members from wanting to be associated with one of the other congregations. At the same time, they may be neglecting the real spiritual needs of their own congregation.

Others take a different approach. They try to retain members by producing a high quality product. That might be accomplished by excelling in Bible teaching, preaching, and ministering to the spiritual needs of the members. Or it might be accomplished by building such strong family relationships among members, that people want to stay together. Or it might mean catering to certain demographic groups (alternate languages, music, specific ministries, etc). It might include all of those approaches, and more.

It is difficult to excel at everything, especially for a small church. It might not be practical for a church of 100 members to support programs in more than one language, for example. It would be better for each church to identify the area or areas of ministry in which they have a natural advantage, and to excel in those areas. Then the various churches can benefit from each other’s strengths.

Protectionism prevents that kind of benefit, by building walls between churches. As Alan Greenspan said, protectionism does not contribute to the long term benefit of the average person. At best it produces a limited short term local benefit, with a larger long term cost. In the end, all the congregations would become poorer because of it. The average member would be worse off in the long run.

There are certainly some doctrinal issues between churches that warrant protective measures. But the constructive way to protect in those areas is to teach the scriptures on those doctrinal subjects. It is not necessary to sully the public image of another congregation to accomplish that.

Elders and ministers who are responsible for the care of God’s church should take a constructive approach to retaining members. Let’s help one another to excel at the task God has given us. We are on the same team.


  1. Alan,Excellent post brother.I have seen to many time people who have alot of money control the Church. It makes me sick and I think God as well. It makes him sad to see the Church divided. I pray for unity and oneness all the time. I pray that barrier in the Church to fall.

  2. Alan,You raise an important issue — and one we need to become very conscious of. We do indeed compete with other congregation — and the more like us they are, the more intensely we compete.In the Churches of Christ, we often compete by means of niche marketing. If there are four Churches in town, each Church will gravitate to a different doctrinal stance, and thereby attract members who think just like they do.The result is for each church to look down on the others as somehow less faithful and sound. Over time, the differences of opinion become differences of faith, and the churches often have little to do with each other.We are so used to this thinking we often aren’t even aware that we do this. It’s hard to find solutions to such deeply ingrained behaviors. But here are some ideas:* Merge. Even if you disagree on some stuff. We were never meant to be divided this way.* Take communion together once a year, maybe once a quarter. Rent a gym or something. Celebrate the unity God has given us.* Have the preachers swap pulpits routinely. * Get the elders to study the Bible together. Maybe each eldership can rotate the lead each quarter.The alternative is more of the same. It’s not very attractive.

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