Christians—Firm yet Flexible
THE stately oak tree is the very picture of strength. When strong winds blow, it usually has little problem standing up to them. While a sturdy oak survives most storms because of its strength and comparative rigidity or firmness, the tiny blade of grass also survives but for quite a different reason. Its secret? Flexibility. It bends but does not break under the force of the wind.
Flexibility or rigidity—which, then, is more important? Actually, a Christian needs a mixture of both. Yet, a balance of firmness and flexibility may sometimes be lacking even among some of God’s people. They have high principles, but a few tend to be unyielding. Others are somewhat like a ‘reed that is tossed by a wind.’ (Matthew 11:7) They succumb to the pressures and influences of this wicked world. Or they may be tolerant to the point of being permissive.
As Solomon said: “For everything there is an appointed time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) When, therefore, is it time to be rigid and when is it time to be flexible?
When to Be Firm
Once, King Saul of Israel was explicitly commanded: “Go, and you must strike down Amalek [an enemy nation] and devote him to destruction with all that he has, and you must not have compassion upon him, and you must put them to death, man as well as woman, child as well as suckling, bull as well as sheep, camel as well as ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3) The Amalekites had a history of opposing both God and his people and thus were worthy of extermination. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) However, “Saul and the people had compassion upon Agag [the king of Amalek] and upon the best of the flock and the herd . . . , and they did not wish to devote them to destruction.” Saul’s bending the rules was not acceptable to Jehovah. “Look!” declared the prophet Samuel, “To obey is better than a sacrifice.”—1 Samuel 15:9-22.
The lesson in this is clear: There can be no flexibility when it comes to obedience to God. “For this is what the love of God means,” said the apostle John, “that we observe [God’s] commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) The experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego illustrates just how far servants of God must be willing to go in showing this obedience. They refused to worship the image that Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar set up. Why? Because God’s law clearly condemned idol worship. (Exodus 20:4-6) They did not reason that the circumstances warranted bending this divine command. Rather, they uncompromisingly preferred death to disobedience.—Daniel 3:16-18.
Most Christians have little trouble submitting to clearly defined Bible laws. But Christians are told: “Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you.” (Hebrews 13:17) Congregation elders may designate specific times for the congregation to meet for field service. Or they may specify that Kingdom Hall equipment should be used in a certain way. True, no Bible text spells out how a thermostat should be adjusted or who should do such adjusting. Yet, when the elders make such decisions, is it not a fine thing to cooperate?
Likewise, a husband may make various decisions for his family. A Christian wife may not necessarily agree with his judgment in a certain respect, but she seeks to obey “the law of her husband.” (Romans 7:2) Obedience to elders, husbands, parents, and employers should not be sidestepped in the name of flexibility.—Colossians 3:18-24.
When to Be Flexible
Nevertheless, there is also a time to be flexible. The apostle Paul indicated this when he said: “Let your reasonableness become known to all men.” (Philippians 4:5) The Greek word Paul used here means “not insisting on the letter of the law; it expresses that considerateness that looks ‘humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case.’” (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) Reasonableness is often a case of being willing to adapt to existing circumstances.
For example, a missionary serving in a foreign country may quickly realize that local rules of etiquette are different from those of the land in which he was reared. But if he looks down on the ways of the local people and refuses to make some adjustments, how effective will his ministry be? So he wisely adapts to the beneficial ways of the new culture.—1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
Interestingly, right after mentioning two women in the congregation who were having personal difficulties, Paul encouraged Philippian Christians to be reasonable. (Philippians 4:2-5) Although Paul did not tell us the nature of their dispute, a lack of reasonableness is often at the heart of strained relations. No one is comfortable around someone critical or overly demanding. “Do not become righteous overmuch,” Solomon cautions, “nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself?”—Ecclesiastes 7:16.
Christians must make allowances for the imperfections of others. How fine it is when we try to look at matters from the viewpoint of the other person! Sadly, though, some Christians in ancient Corinth were so concerned about their personal “rights” that they even resorted to taking fellow believers to court. By airing their problems before unbelievers, they not only brought reproach upon the congregation but also widened the breach between themselves.—1 Corinthians 6:1-6.
Paul therefore encouraged offended Corinthian Christians to have a yielding attitude. He urged: “Really, then, it means altogether a defeat for you that you are having lawsuits with one another. Why do you not rather let yourselves be wronged? Why do you not rather let yourselves be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7) A Christian considers it gain to maintain good relations with his spiritual brothers and sisters.
Being reasonable is especially fitting for those exercising authority. For example, parents may set a time by which their sons and daughters must be home in the evening. But suppose a child requests an exception to the rule on one occasion? Would it not be appropriate at least to consider the specific circumstances involved? And what about Christian elders? Is not reasonableness one of their qualifications? (1 Timothy 3:3) Yes. But when and how should they manifest this quality?
Elders—Firm yet Flexible
The apostle Peter once contrasted “reasonable” men with those “hard to please.” (1 Peter 2:18) An elder might offer some suggestions to help a brother improve his speaking ability. But if the elder applies a very rigid standard and fails to take into consideration the education, abilities, and circumstances of the brother, what could happen? The brother might resent the counsel or become very discouraged, concluding that the elders are too “hard to please.”
Elders must also be flexible about applying various rules in the congregation. Never should they allow rules to ‘make the word of God invalid’ by giving such rules greater weight than the perfect principles of Jehovah’s Word.—Matthew 15:6; 23:23.
It is appropriate for elders to be flexible when Scriptural principles are not violated by such flexibility. For instance, they may note that at large, crowded conventions, the saving of seats is strongly discouraged. But must such a rule be enforced in a small congregation where seats are plentiful? Or the elders may feel that generally a certain form of attire—such as a jacket and tie for men—is appropriate for door-to-door preaching. Such was the case in a congregation in a South American land. Nevertheless, an elder there learned that a young man was holding back from sharing the good news with others. The reason? He could not afford to buy a jacket and a tie. The elder concluded that flexibility was in order and therefore encouraged the young man to begin sharing his faith with others.
Flexibility must also be shown in handling judicial cases in the congregation. Although the wrongdoing could warrant the disfellowshipping of a wrongdoer, what if repentance is shown? Jehovah set the proper pattern in his dealings with the people of Nineveh. God had told Jonah: “Only forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Yet, when the people manifested repentance, Jehovah did not insist on following through with the announced destruction. He recognized that circumstances had changed. (Jonah 3:4, 10) Similarly, elders should delight in ‘forgiving in a large way’ where there is clear evidence of true repentance.—Isaiah 55:7.
Maintaining a balance between firmness and flexibility is not easy. Imperfect humans naturally seem prone to extremes. But Christians who strive to be firm yet flexible will be richly rewarded. Because they try to be flexible, they will enjoy better relations with others and will avoid much emotional turmoil. Moreover, because appointed elders are firm, steadfast in good works as integrity keepers, they set an example that wins the confidence and cooperation of the entire congregation, as all move on together with the hope of everlasting life.—Isaiah 32:2; 1 Corinthians 15:58.