The Aquila Report pointed to an excellent article today that we both commend to you:
I greatly enjoyed this article by Megan Fowler and thought you might too:
“What makes pastoral ministry so difficult that, although men feel called to pastoral ministry for a lifetime and spend years training in seminary, they often quit after a few years? What does it take to sustain lifelong pastoral excellence?”
“I am a regular attender, not a member.”
Those were the sad words I heard; another person explaining to me the nature of their relationship with the church that they had been attending for eight years.
I asked her:
“I know your church practices formal church membership, why haven’t you joined?”
“I had such a bad experience in my former church where I was a member that I resolved to never again join a church. Conflicts in that church hurt me a lot and, being a member, drew me into situations I would rather have avoided, so I said ‘NEVER AGAIN!’ Besides, what difference does it make? I do everything in this church a member does except vote.”
Here, again, was an apparently sincere Christian declaring that her personal past experience could, and would, trump God’s Word. God’s declared will as revealed in the Scriptures was irrelevant when stacked against her own experience. When I pointed out to her that the Bible consistently presupposes that believers will form relationships of spiritual accountability, service, and soul care within a local church she became indignant and said:
“What does that have to do with anything?”
And then she walked away.
I don’t usually quote Universalist pastors, but in this case, Edwin Hubbell Chapin (1814-1880) said something that applies well here:
“Tribulation will not hurt you, unless, as it often does, it hardens you and makes you sour, narrow, and skeptical.”
That certainly seemed to be the effect that this woman’s prior experience with church conflict had on her. Here she was, years later, carrying the baggage from a prior church conflict. She claimed to be a Christian who “believed in” God’s Word and who attended a local church. But since her church was properly organized, she would not be allowed to:
Her perspective was that she was just like any member of her church, but, in fact, she was not (in any meaningful sense) a part of her church at all.
The heart of the New Testament church is meaningful engagement through full enjoyment of what it means to be a “member of Christ’s body” (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 6:15, 12:24; Ephesians 3:6, 4:25, 5:30; Colossians 3:15). Church membership means being a part of something eternal. It does not merely mean “getting to vote at congregational meetings.” As Pastor Edmund Clowney has written:
“The lists of names in the book of Numbers give evidence of God’s concern to define membership in his people; God’s book of life is the archetype of the earthly register of his people (Ex.32:32-33; Mal. 3:16).” The Church, p. 104
This poor and misguided woman had allowed her prior experience to stand between her and what life as a member of Christ’s body—the church—was all about. More significantly, she did so by believing that her personal experience was more valuable and trustworthy than the Word of God, a book she professed to believe in. Her actions spoke far louder than her words, however, and she was actually a hypocrite who didn’t realize that failing to join her church was an act of unbelief that set her in the company of those apart from God. Again, I quote Dr. Clowney:
“Those who say that church membership is not necessary, or even that it is unbiblical, fail to grasp what the New Testament teaches about the church and the administration of the sacraments. Jesus accompanied his promise to build his church with the gift of the keys of the kingdom. Those who do not heed the final discipline of the church are to be regarded as Gentiles and publicans, that is, as outside the membership of the community. (MT 18:17)” Id.
The other sad aspect of this story is what unintended effects her prior church’s conflicts had on her present spiritual life. That past conflict situation stood as the root cause of her present unbelief in the church as Christ’s body. Few church leaders and members fail to count the cost that conflict may inflict on others or themselves—presently and in the future.
May we be careful and wise as we live before the face of God!
Grateful for the church,
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
All pastors are sinners, just like the rest of us. But some pastors sin in particularly brazen ways. These sins sometimes stay hidden for a certain period of time, but sooner or later, the truth will come to light. And when that happens—when a pastor is caught in deception and overt sin—trust is shattered:
Caught in the firestorm of their own making, many disgraced pastors simply resign and run as far away as possible from the people, families, churches and denominations they have loved. This response is tragic for two reasons:
It is possible for a disgraced pastor to be forgiven and restored—maybe not to the pulpit, maybe not to an ordained position—but restored to God, family, and community. The blood of Christ was shed for pastors too! And in that, we rejoice. But we also rejoice in the countless pastors who have taken wise steps to avoid these temptations and guard their churches from the utter destruction that often befalls the church when a pastor has been taken captive by sin.
To encourage everyone involved (the pastor, his family members, his fellow leaders, and all church members), we would like to focus the balance of this article on the three most prevalent areas of temptation that pastors give in to and then how these destructive sins can be avoided:
The latter temptation is such a huge topic, we really want to save its treatment for an entire post of its own. But let it suffice to say that because God has created us as sexual beings for his good purposes of fulfilling the creation mandate and providing intimate human companionship, any sexual release or relationship outside of the marriage relationship is both a heinous sin against one’s own body and one’s spouse, and also against the Lord because it flaunts his law. Surely, no Christian pastor stands on his own wedding day, vowing to be faithful to his wife, but secretly thinking:
“One day, when I’m tired and lonely and feeling ostracized and unappreciated; one day when a beautiful woman sits across from me in my church office, hanging on my every word, affirming me as being brilliant and caring and handsome and witty; one day, I will cross a line emotionally with her. And the next time, I will cross another line…a physical one. Until, one day, in a fog, blinded by my sinful heart, I find myself in bed with her. I will keep up the charade of preaching. I will lead Bible studies and tuck my children into bed at night. And all the while, I will violate my wife and join my body with another.”
No. No pastor ever expects to say those things and do those things—but every day, pastors sin in this way. This dysfunction leads to profound wreckage in the lives of the many. That is why we must help to guard our pastors and do all we can to protect their marriage relationships. (More on this topic in a later post.)
The other two areas of prevalent sin for pastors also reflect a dysfunction, but in a more subtle way. The deceit is just as harmful, however, and thus, church members and leaders must take steps to guard their pastor from these temptations by creating a culture and environment where boundaries have been carefully set and communicated. In doing so, they will serve the pastor and the church well, and they will help to protect the reputation of Christ and the church.
Money issues, particularly those dependent on the discretion of a single person, require careful monitoring. While most churches provide a pastor with a church credit card for his use, failure to establish clear spending guidelines (limits and categories) can lead to unintended misuse, confusion, and even a temptation to “push the envelope” that frequently leads to accusations of pastoral greed and deceit. Wise church leaders put in place a system where a monthly audit confirms appropriate use and requires the pastor to personally reimburse the church for any questionable expense. “Trust but verify” is appropriate in this matter because the temptation “for the sake of convenience” (“I knew the deacons would authorize this expense but they were unavailable when my decision had to be made”) has led to the dismissal of many pastors. Unfortunately, some pastors may feel undercompensated in their positions and will thus “justify” spending money from their expense account on personal pleasures in sort of a hidden way to “make up for” their sense of being underpaid. This area of temptation, all areas of temptation, reveals a misplaced sense of identity as a pastor and as a Christian, and misplaced trust. Pastors are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3) and what they model should be and will be viewed from a strict perspective.
The temptation for many pastors to be “right” drives some to telling less than whole truths. We have never met a pastor who has admitted to outright lying. Many, however, have had to confess they were less than completely transparent and forthcoming with every aspect of the truth. This form of pastoral temptation is deceit that is grounded in pride. Unfortunately, many churches create such an “ivory tower” mentality around their shepherd that for him to fail to live up to their high expectations is tantamount to an admission of failure. The need to always be right brings evidence of trust in self and not in the risen Christ; again an issue of misplaced identity. Church leaders and church members must be realistic about what a fallen human being can and cannot do, even one called and ordained to the role of pastor. Pastors are frequently lonely people simply because they, too, even though set apart for the special calling to be God’s voice in our midst, need compassion, friendship, intimacy, and the freedom to be wrong from time to time.
Peter, writing of what sort of people we should be as we await the “Day of the Lord,” asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3:11). His answer comes a few verses later:
Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 2 Peter 3:14
Making such effort means, of course, first finding ourselves totally unable to do that what is called for. Only as we are “in Christ” (that is, our identity and trust is not in self or any other person) can we meet the call to “make every effort.” The same holds true for your pastor so be wise and compassionate as you make that effort to guard and encourage your pastor’s marriage, protect him from the temptation of money by paying him a salary that is worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17), and creating a realistic church environment in which pastoral freedom to be wrong promotes truth telling to the fullest extent. We do that best by remembering we are all part of God’s family walking through this life as “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13) longing for our true home. We do that best in respectful partnership with each other as we honor one another as image bearers of the One who has called us.
-Dave Edling and Tara Barthel
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
This was a church conflict that never should have happened.
One man was excellent at vision casting, capturing the excitement and motivating people for great things in the name of the Lord. The other was an excellent teacher. Working in harmony they could have accomplished so much for the Kingdom. Instead, frustration and anger plagued the work of the church. Staff members quit their jobs; members left; blame-casting began; and soon both of the pastors were looking for new calls.
The use and misuse of spiritual gifts are major causes of conflicts in the church. Paul seeks to bring some order to our understanding of the use of gifts in the church as he corrects the Corinthians and urges them with these memorable words:
“Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12 (emphasis added)
There are four main reasons why church conflicts often emerge due to the misuse of spiritual gifts:
Consider how jealousy destroyed the relationship between these two gifted pastors. Rather than rejoice in God’s gracious provision of gifting for His glory and the benefit of His work, these men competed with one another and envied the “advantages” of the other. Their jealousy lead to critical judgments of one another whenever they perceived a lack of support or excitement for “their” passion and vision (and gifting). Of course, foundationally, they both had extreme cases of spiritual blindness (a topic that Tara and I tackle at depth in Chapter 8 of Redeeming Church Conflicts). Rather than see and humbly acknowledge their weaknesses (and then compensate for their weaknesses by enjoying the strengths of one another), they tried to be fruitful in areas where their particular gifts were lacking. And all of these conflicts were fueled by a consistent failure to appreciate and encourage one another.
Rather than working within their areas of giftedness and appreciating the unique contributions each man was making for the advancement of the Kingdom, these leaders misused their gifts. Their relationship was doomed as a result and their church was terribly damaged. This could have been avoided if they had heeded the counsel of the Apostle Paul to “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Yes, the specific context of this argument applies directly to a distinction between prophesy and tongues as gifts, but earlier in Chapter 14, Paul provides the direction and goal for the use of all spiritual gifts:
“…for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3) …so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5).
All appropriate uses of spiritual gifts have these common goals:
No gift is superior to another; no gift is to be overlooked because all spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church. As one body, united in Christ, we share one calling: Build up the church! We do that best when we build up each other. That is why the Spirit has poured out his gifts upon living stones…we, the church. There is no room for jealously, criticism, blindness, and lack of appreciation when it comes to our mutual joy of unleashing the gifts of the Spirit that have been poured out for the sole reason of building up the church. Such foolishness and sin is immature and destructive and we ought to pray that our churches would never have conflict due to the misuse of the abundant spiritual gifts God has given his people.
Paul ends chapter 14 with this warning (verse 20):
“Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”
How do we think (and live) as adults? We avoid the works of the flesh as listed in Galatians 5 (including, of course, enmity, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy) and we manifest the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”Galatians 5:25
For the Glory of the Lord and His Church,
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
This summer at our church I am teaching the material of Redeeming Church Conflicts in one of our Sunday morning adult community groups. Yesterday during class a man said (with a degree of confidence) that the Bible endorses conflict in the church in order to sort things out…who is right and who is wrong. He didn’t know the exact passage but knew it was in one of Paul’s epistles. I didn’t have time at the moment to go into a detailed response but will next week in order to help that man and the others in the class put Paul’s comment into context and perspective.
The verses the man was referring to are those we find at 1 Corinthians 11:17-19:
In the following directives, I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.
In the course of my ministry as a Christian Conciliator I have heard this passage used as justification, authorization, and even biblical warrant for church conflict. But is that really what Paul is saying? It would seem that the one who wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”(Ephesians 4:2-3) would not write something as drastically contradictory as advocated by the understanding of those who interpret the First Corinthians passage above as a license for divisions in the church. Here is where interpretive tools become so important:
Applying the first tool (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), we have seen already that 1 Corinthians 11:19 can’t mean that God authorizes divisions in the church. Not only at Ephesians 4, but Paul’s argument in the very next chapter of First Corinthians (chapter 12), especially beginning at verse 12 where he equates the church body with a physical human body, it is clear Paul is saying specifically that divisions in the church make absolutely no sense and have no place in the body of Christ. Verses 24b through 25 states this very directly:
But God has combined the members of the body (meaning the members of Christ’s body, the members of the church), and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body (meaning no division in the church between its members), but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
Paul makes this lesson emphatically clear when he states at verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
So what does Paul mean when he states, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval?”
The context of the passage answers that question. Paul is giving specific “directives” (verse 17) to the members of this church so that their meetings (worship services) will honor God and not merely demonstrate their spiritual immaturity. Using a number of examples he seeks to correct the self-centered patterns (selfishness) that has led church members to conduct themselves in ways that are inconsistent with the very faith they profess and seek to practice. The first example is that of how communion (The Lord’s Supper) should be administered (Chapter 11, verses 20 through 29). Then he turns to jealously over spiritual gifts (Chapter 12, verses 1 through 11, and verses 28 through 31). Then (after words emphasizing the goal of unity through mutual care and love; Chapter 12, verses 12 through 27, and all of Chapter 13) he turns to the disruptive misuse of the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues (Chapter 14, verses 1 through 25). Finally, in Chapter 14 at verse 26 he asks, “What then shall we say?” Here Paul is now ready to summarize what he means about the foolishness of divisions in the church over these specific matters of worship and life together in the church. And what does he say:
All of these (meaning every element of their meetings over which there has been so much division) must be done for the strengthening of the church. 1 Corinthians 14:26c (emphases and explanation added)
Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit not only to the believers at Corinth at that time but to all Christians of all time, is specifically condemning divisions in the church by instructing them how to cease their infighting by doing worship and life together in the right manner that follows the overarching principle of selflessness (love and care) toward one another, especially when gathering together for worship of their Lord and Savior. He is showing them specifically what “God approves” and what He disapproves (verse 19) concerning those matters that have come to his attention because of their divisions.
God does not endorse division and conflict in the church. His own body… the body of Christ, is one. Rather, he corrects our errors by bringing instruction, which is one form of discipline. We are truly God’s children and eternal siblings dwelling together in His church when we receive such discipline and rejoice in it and don’t attempt to twist it in order to further feed self-centeredness through finding an argument for divisions in that which cannot be divided.
God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. Hebrews 12:10b
- Dave Edling
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
Q. Redeeming church conflicts doesn’t apply to us because our church is being sued by non-Christians. So we have to listen to our lawyers, right?
A. If you are being sued by anybody it is always wise to listen to your lawyers. Besides being licensed experts in the secular law, however, lawyers are not merely “attorneys-at-law;” they are also to be “counselors-at-law.” That means they are to be aware of what is important to you as Christians and how your faith will be expressed even as you respond to a lawsuit. And that means that redeeming church conflicts does apply because you don’t stop becoming people of faith just because you are being sued by non-Christians. Christians, of course, should retain Christian lawyers who will be sensitive to the priorities and values of their fellow believers.
Tara and I define “redeeming church conflict” as:
“Intentional dependence on the humbling and heart changing grace of Christ’s Holy Spirit by turning relational crisis in the church into compassionate care as you take every thought and deed captive to him.”
Since Christians are concerned about the reputation of Christ and his church in the world how we respond to a lawsuit initiated by non-Christians will demonstrate our commitment to that concern.
A wonderful missionary friend (now deceased) by the name of Harvey Conn used to say, “The church is the only organization in the world that has great concern for its non-members.” Our relationship with non-Christians should reflect a deep concern for their present and future existence so we become those who “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) as a witness to the eternal truths we have embraced. Regardless of what others do (Christian or non-Christian) we are called to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). As such, redeeming church conflicts applies to conflicts arising both within and without the church. To redeem any conflict is not dependent on what anyone else does. Our trust in the Lord means we don’t have to fall victim to worldly conformity:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 2 Corinthians 10:3
At the same time, however:
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matthew 10:16
So, listen to your lawyers (being “shrewd’), but also speak to them as well of your faith in Christ and your love for your enemies (being “innocent”). Doing both should not be hard since it is the practical plan given to us by our Lord.
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
Q. How can I maintain an “eternal perspective” given the harsh realities of this church conflict?
A. It is one thing to give mental assent to the concept of living from an “eternal perspective,” and quite another to actually fit life’s temporal events into that larger framework. But, as Christians, that is what we are called to do. One of my seminary professors, Dr. John Frame, famously wrote:
“Scripture makes it clear that those who are unable to apply God’s Word do not truly understand it.”
Our call and our challenge is to apply what we both know and believe to be true from God’s revealed Word (His will) to every aspect of our lives; every trial, every suffering, every disappointment, and every conflict. Of course we still struggle to consistently practice what we believe in a manner that both mentally embraces and practically demonstrates a consistency of what I call “faith-belief-life.” If I truly believe that the greatest portion of my existence will be spent apart from my physical body and away from this temporal world, then shouldn’t that present belief also presently define how I deal with the harsh matters of this temporal life?
Having tried to live as consistently as possible with what I believe, I confess, it is not always easy. (What an understatement!) Actually, I have found that it is impossible! That impossibility is what makes the Gospel “good news.” God has graciously revealed that it is not by human effort that I can rightfully anticipate a glorious future spent in an eternal paradise with Him forever. That is what faith in Jesus Christ has accomplished, but even more, I can rightfully now anticipate that thorough God-enabled and God-directed effort I can live in this present world as His eternal child. I can do that because he is all about conforming me, and conforming you, to his noble and eternal purposes (see Romans 12:2 and 2 Timothy 2:21). That reality should make a rather significant difference in how we are able to live day-to-day while still clothed in this flesh.
Two practical elements of living from an eternal perspective are embodied in the biblical concepts of intentionality and contentment. These are practical terms and concepts that, for me, put content to eternal perspective living.
The biblical basis for intentionality is Philippians 4:9, 1Timothy 4:15, and 2 Peter 1:10:
The biblical basis for contentment is Philippians 4:11, 1Timothy 6:6-7, and Hebrews 13:5:
When we know what practices we, as Christians, are to be intentional about, and those intentions are set within the context of contentment in our present day realities, we can have great hope and assurance that our efforts are God-enabled and God-dependent even as each day passes in this rapidly departing world. Intentionality and contentment reflect our faith in Christ, that He is subduing all things under His control. And even the tragic events we all experience take on meaning beyond their immediate consequences. Looking beyond the surface of our sorrows and conflicts, we are bolstered by thepurposes that all life situations have. Purposes that are eternal purposes, rooted all the way back in the throne room and very character of God Himself. With our hearts fixed on eternity, we see beyond our daily conflicts (as difficult as they may be) and we fix our hopes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our Faith. God Himself is using all of our life events to mold us into his eternal children so that we will be useful both now and forever. Imagine! How our churches would blossom with gentleness, patience, joy, and peace if only more and more Christians began to consistently hold an eternal perspective of faith – belief – life.
Of course there are many other Scriptural principles that call us to maintain an eternal perspective. I have shared two of my favorites with you, but I would love to know yours—and especially how you live your life in accordance with the verses that prompt you to live with an eternal perspective.
I will sign off with a profound quote by the great theologian, Yogi Berra:
When you come to a fork in the road take it!
We will, Yogi Berra! We all come to many forks in our roads every day. Hour by hour, minute by minute, we can intentionally choose contentment as we apply all of our faith and belief to all of our life’s decisions. Or we can go the way of darkness and folly—never putting up the good fight of effort, of intentional trying. No. Instead, we choose to live miserable lives of rebellion against all we claim to believe, all we claim to have faith in. One path leads to life. The other, destruction. Choose (intentional, contentment-filled) life!
(This article was originally published in 2012.)
Q. What does corporate forgiveness look like? Can a whole congregation forgive a church leader?
A. Jim Van Yperen in his book Making Peace accurately notes that church conflicts are always about leadership. Not that all church conflicts are initially between leaders or a leader and a member or group of members, but that since leaders have responsibility for the life of the church it is leaders who either bring an end to conflict or allow its continuation. The word “allow” here doesn’t fully capture the dynamic of the continuation of congregational conflict because it fails to recognize that leader incompetence or abdication can also be the cause of continued fights. I have seen many churches spiral into church-wide conflict because leaders failed in their duty to be peacemakers for a wide range of reasons. When sheep fight they need the shepherd to return calm. When the shepherd or shepherds fail the conflict now is about them because they have failed to bring effective peacemaking to the flock.
With that background, what does it mean and what does it take for the whole flock to say to the shepherd (or shepherds):
“OK, you failed to shepherd us and we were hurt by the continuation of conflict, BUT we forgive you; you can still be our shepherd.”
That question, and that action, is premature, of course, at this point in the response. The better question that needs to be asked first is “How can a church leader communicate with power and believability that he has failed in his duty to bring peace to the flock?” A group of people cannot corporately forgive until they have seen true humility, brokenness, and contriteness on the part of the responsible leader or leaders. I my experience, that has been, unfortunately, a rare occasion.
In Redeeming Church Conflicts, we do tell one story of a memorable occasion where church leaders did the hard foundational work of laying the groundwork for congregational forgiveness. But even then, some church members refused, in their state of agitation and spiritual immaturity, they missed the opportunity to forgive truly repentant and humble leaders. Those members became the ones now responsible for the continuation of conflict, not the shepherds. They fled the church when they saw they wouldn’t get what they wanted. But for those who had the spiritual maturity to “see” what was really taking place on that memorable day this is what occurred.
Following a sincere (and emotion laden) confession by the pastor and elders as they stood before the assembled church membership where each one spoke of their “fear of man” and “unworthiness” to be a leader, the members responded:
There were some howls of protest. But most there that day realized something profound was happening and that it wasn’t just about these men standing before them. Later some said they saw idols being slain and shepherds emerging from the ashes. Others admitted feeling small in the presence of men who had laid down their weapons of defensiveness and self-justification to pick up the gentle harmony of humility as they demonstrated a unity with the crucified Christ without concern for temporal consequences. That was a day that would be long remembered at CBC.
Group (corporate) forgiveness is less about “what it might look like” and all about what is going on in the heart of each church member and that is only and all about the work of the Holy Spirit granting a spirit of forgiveness in each heart that has been prepared to accept the Spirit’s gift of forgiveness. In that church every member that forgave stood and through tears said “I forgive you.” That is what corporate forgiveness “looks like.”
Corporate forgiveness is dependent on individual forgiveness and that is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in a heart ready to be obedient; ready to be redeeming:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15
(This article was originally published in 2012.)