There are people in the church who have been in the church so long they have forgotten they are hypocrites.

Tara often does Q&A’s at her events and one question she hears a lot is: How can I help a person see and confess their sin that has become a barrier to our relationship?

In a previous blog, I responded to one aspect of that question: the problem of spiritual blindness. But that is only part of the response that should be considered. Unrecognized sin that has become a barrier to a person’s relationships in the church is a major contributor to wider church conflicts. While spiritual blindness does trap a Christian into thinking they have no sin that needs to be faced, there are other factors that we should consider.

On Tara’s personal blog, she recently posted a link to a CCEF podcast entitled “How Can We Lovingly Help a Friend to Face His Sins?” The core of that excellent message focuses on the best methodological way to answer that recurring question. Dr. David Powlison (one of my all-time champions in the world of biblical counseling) says all the right things:

  • “Confront sin in the context of mercy.”
  • “If someone genuinely knows I care for them I can speak truth to them.”
  • [It is quite appropriate to say to a sin-captured friend … ] “In what you believe and how you are living you are destroying yourself.”

As always, Dr. Powlison’s counsel is based in Scripture. “Speak the truth in love” is the message of Ephesians 4:15, 4:25, and 4:29. And 2 Timothy 2:24-26 encourages us to love people by demonstrating mercy and care even as we confront them with the sin that has taken them captive. I find it reassuring to know from the counsel of one of the church’s most godly and respected biblical counselors that the loving thing to do is to bring to a sin-captured friend the truth of sin’s effect on their life and in relationships. The podcast interview concludes with the observation that even if the person continues on their path of destructive sin they will remember your mercy and care. Ultimately, God will use the way you spoke to your friend at some point to change that person.

I agree with everything said in this podcast interview. And I obviously believe that spiritual blindness is a major cause of Christians being unable to face their sin because they simply don’t presently perceive or believe their words or actions are sinful. But this brings me to another difficult observation:

What if my friend, a self-professing Christian, cannot discern spiritual blindness due to something else?  That is, what if they are (despite their Christian profession) actually unregenerate and unable to spiritually discern sin?

That is the issue of 1 Corinthians 2:14:

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (emphasis added).

Even in the context of mercy; even if my friend knows that I love, like, and care for them; even if they may agree their behaviors are self-destructive, the fact remains, according to Scripture, that my friend will not discern their behavior as sin because sin is something spiritually discerned.

This reminds me of what one of my seminary professors taught us:

“There are people in the church who have been in the church so long they have forgotten they are hypocrites.”

Sadly, unbelievers on the membership rolls of every church are the norm rather than the exception. The church is a mixture of true believers and those who may think they are believers but actually are hypocrites. (See the frightening words of this reality at Matthew 7:21-23.) These are the friends needing our greatest care, mercy, and love … they need the Gospel for the first time! Repeated denial of ones sins is clear evidence of unbelief going beyond spiritual blindness. We would expect a true believer to actually “see” their sins when mercifully confronted about them by a friend and to repent and do everything possible to change. That is clear evidence of belief and faith. Repentance and confession is the norm for a Christian. Everyday life in the kingdom is reflected by one simple character trait: humility.

I have been in too many churches where conflicts go on and on because there is no repentance, no confession, and no humility. I fear at the heart of those conflicts there are people who are unregenerate but who think they are Christians.

The Bible teaches us that sin is something that is spiritually discerned (see, for example, Romans 1:18-32), and that too often we expect people in the church to quickly change and turn from their sin when, in fact, they simply cannot because they have no ability for spiritual discernment. In many church conflicts what is most evident is a level of spiritlessness that defends sin rather than discerns it. Authors Tim Lane and Paul Tripp put this far more delicately and articulately when they say in their wonderful book How People Change:

The average Christian defines sin by talking about behavior. Beneath the battle for behavior is another, more fundamental battle — the battle for the thoughts and motives of the heart. Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire. As much as we are affected by our broken world and the sins of others against us, our greatest problem is the sin that resides in our hearts. That is why the message of the gospel is that God transforms our lives by transforming our hearts. Lasting change always comes through the heart. This is one of Scriptures most thoroughly developed themes, but many of us have missed its profound implications” (pages 14-15).

I strongly believe that one of those profound implications is the fact that the heart of an unbeliever is unable to spiritually discern sin. Thus, we have no right to expect change. What we ought to do instead is prayerfully and lovingly bring our friend to the Gospel in such a way that the truth of their behavior convicts them of their inability to spiritually discern. In effect, we are saying:

“Even though you have professed Christ as your Lord and Savior you seem to be demonstrating that your passion and desire for _______________ is more important and stronger than your love and passion for Jesus Christ.  Your behavior is one condemned by Christ as sin, yet you persist in it.  Will you please allow me, as your friend, to help you to see the Gospel and all of its implications so that you can have the sure foundation of a real relationship with God and a real relationship with your loved ones (including me)?”

Jesus Himself spoke directly to this issue in Luke 6:

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete” (Luke 6:46-49).

Church conflicts are like floods. Will your house, your church, stand or fall in the torrent? Does the foundation of true belief reside in every member’s heart? You will certainly know as soon as the flood of conflict hits.

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Confrontation, Spiritual Blindness, Uncategorized

Inconsistency Reveals Deception–Especially in Church Conflicts

Q. Has there been one key similarity or common characteristic you have noticed about how Christians typically respond to conflicts in their churches?

A. While always difficult to name just one dynamic given the complexity of church conflict, yes, I have observed a common trend in situations and that has been a lack of consistency between a believer’s faith and life. Let me explain.

My motivation to be in ministry has always been tied to an interest in consistency. Being consistent—living in a manner that unites what you believe with what you then actually do—is, of course, not easy. It has always been a struggle for me. There are too many temptations, too many traps along the route, and too many idols to satisfy that are ready to derail the best of intentions in my pursuit of consistency. I know this all too well from 65 years of life, and, if honest, you, dear reader, know it well also. Even when it comes to a life of faith in Christ how easy it is to say something that is a compromise of what I believe and then allow behavior to wrongly follow. It seems that the human condition for inconsistency has been with us for a long time (Romans 7:15 and 19):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do. (v. 15)

For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (v. 19)

The apostle Paul goes on to describe accurately what we all know:

For in my inner being [what I believe] I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body [what I do] waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:22-24)

In church conflicts, I have seen this battle between belief and behavior, between faith and life, raging more violently than in almost any other arena. Caring Christians become deceitful schemers; brothers and sisters in Christ become engaged in doing harm rather than following what they say they believe: to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Evidence of inconsistency is everywhere but unseen, unappreciated. Many heart idols (those personal desires and agendas) that are revealed through harsh words and actions come to tower over Christ’s call for gentleness and “wholesome talk” (Ephesians 4:29).  The beliefs that form the core of one’s profession of Christ are quickly compromised in favor of winning an argument.

Paul asks the right (and best) question: Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  And that, too, is the question we must ask when engaged in church conflicts.

We must look for consistency. When there is a want of it we must suspect deception.
–Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Problem of Thor Bridge”

Just as the fictional sleuth pursued the unraveling of crimes, we too are called by faith’s appeal for consistency to unravel the crime of church conflict. We are called to look for inconsistency in our own hearts and also help those of our eternal siblings in the church so that we may all put first things first. Inconsistency reveals deception—we must suspect it! And what is Satan’s prime work? Deception, of course! We have been called to “not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27), and to “resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). There is no more important task at hand when the church faces conflict.

Who will rescue us from this body of death? There is only one—The Prince of Peace who lives—the One has been consistently calling us to “be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8). Only by turning and returning again and again to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and all of its implications for faith/life, belief/behavior consistency have I ever seen church conflicts redeemed and biblically resolved. Getting everyone back to the basics of our faith is the first step. Consistency of faith (what we believe) and consistency of life (what we say and do) answers the key application question of our faith: “So What and Now What?” How we answer that is the evidence, the only evidence, by which we demonstrate that we know He, The Prince of Peace, lives and reigns.

If you are presently involved in a church conflict search your heart for any inconsistency between what you believe and what you are doing in response to the conflicts. Are you making every effort to be a redemptive peacemaker? If not, repent and begin again by bringing forth the fruit of consistency.

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict

“It was like being in Hell with instructions!”

I have been writing this week, but it hasn’t been for this website. Rather, my efforts have been directed at writing a requested review of a new book for The Gospel Coalition.

So, I was thinking of just taking the week off from blogging when I read a passage from a book I recently started that fits in my category of “relaxation/pastime” pleasures, a luxury I have afforded myself in my retirement years. The book is A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) which is about the 1968-1969 non-stop circumnavigation of the world sailing race by nine solo yachtsmen. The book’s sub-title is: Nine men set out to race each other around the world. Only one returned.

The opening chapters of the book go into some detail about each of the nine participants. One, a rugged British paratrooper by the name of Chay Blyth, had never sailed in his entire life. Here was a man of adventure who had rowed across the Atlantic several years earlier but had not one clue about sailing. He was in this race, in his own words, for survival adventure:

“Out here it’s all black and white, survival. I’m not particularly fond of the sea, it’s just a question of survival.” (page 49)

My brother and I used to have a vision of one day sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Bora Bora. He is a commercial fisherman and boat-builder and I am retired from the Coast Guard with both Navy and Coast Guard deep water sailing experience. I was once even the navigator of a U.S. Navy ship. We thought this would be a fitting adventure for our mid-60’s until both of our wives heard the plan. Now, we are not going and my brother sold his boat. Oh well! At least I get to live the vicarious life of reading about others who have taken to the high seas. I have to admit that differing from Chay, I was not out for merely the survival aspect of such a voyage…I expected to survive and have some serious fun along the way.

Chay’s race did not begin well. Three weeks into his passage he sailed into a gale and discovered he had no idea how to meet the challenge. He was helpless in a vessel he was quickly discovering had poor design qualities for such weather. As the boat became unmanageable and began to broach before the huge seas and high winds, he wrote the following words (which were also my inspiration for this week’s RCC blog entry):

“So I lowered the sails…and once I had lowered them there was nothing more I could do except pray. So I prayed. And between times I turned to one of my sailing manuals to see what advice it contained for me. It was like being in hell with instructions.(page 50)

As co-author of a book on dealing with the crisis of church conflicts, I was immediately struck with the thought:

How many pastors feel exactly like Chay when the gale waters of conflict hit their church? Yes, they pray. And then they turn to the many “manuals” to see what advice they may contain…but how often do they feel that they are “in hell with instructions”?

Unlike Chay’s knowledge of sailing, most pastors know a lot about how to lead a church. But that leadership is usually under conditions of calm seas and gentle following winds. When the storm hits, however, the climate changes and “all hell breaks loose” (to use an old nautical and other adventurous term).  As I read A Voyage for Madmen, I began to wonder:

“Have Tara and I just written another “manual” that offers little real advice in the storm of church conflict? If prayer is not sufficient what is?”

Having worked with a significant number of conflicted churches, we know that church conflict can feel very much like a foretaste and glimmer of “Hell” … so the analogy is apropos.

Of course, Chay’s problem was that he didn’t learn how to sail through rough and stormy waters before he left port on such an adventurous undertaking. That should never be the case in the church as regards conflict. Pastors, other leaders, and every church member have time to prepare for the looming storm of church conflict. In Redeeming Church Conflicts we warn readers to prepare before the high winds of conflict begin to swamp the hallowed halls (and every relationship is at risk of being washed overboard). Don’t wait to read the “manual” until the turbulent times are sinking your ship…read and prepare now! Don’t be like Chay!

As of my reading this morning, I don’t know yet how Chay fares in the race he has entered. I will finish this book and discover the ending in a couple of days. But I do know that if you, as a pastor, church leader, or church member, don’t prepare for the voyage of church conflict before it strikes the bow, stern or amidships of your church, you will broach. Therefore, you must enter the race prepared!

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” 1 Corinthians 9: 24-25

For the glory of His everlasting crown,
-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church | 2 Comments

“I Already Know That!”

In my years of serving as a Christian mediator, I have been privileged to assist extraordinarily gifted men and women of great faith and world-class formal educations. In one such situation, I was sitting between two (very angry) co-senior pastors of a large suburban church. Both loved the Lord and loved their church—but their years of subtle maneuvering for the position of greatest power and influence over their members had brought about a terrible result. Their relationship was nonexistent. It had been months since they had even prayed with one another. And the church was crumbling beneath even these “gifted,” “brilliant” men.

“I already know that!”

One pastor responded to the most recent point made in our four hour stretch of meditating on Holy Scripture.

“I already know that!”

He flung at me and his opponent. Not with gratitude (“Thank You, Lord, for allowing me to see You and Your Truth in Your Word”), but as a weapon to attack, a wall to hide behind, a way to proclaim his superior knowledge of God’s Word and put any hope of reasoned discussion to an end.

“I know that. I know all of God’s Word better than you. So what? Let’s move on!”

But we could not move on. To merely give intellectual assent to something with no personal engagement or response of obedience is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, “Your Mama wears combat boots!” Nothing productive is gained. No one is helped. This pastor could claim to believe anything he wanted to—as long as it didn’t have to change him. And these biblical truths did not change him. He was unmoved. Unimpressed—by me as his mediator, by God’s inerrant Word. Despite multiple graduate degrees and years of pastoral experience, this man was immature:

“Spiritual maturity results from practicing truth in everyday life, not from knowing truth in one’s mind.” Paul Tripp (see also Hebrews 5:11-14)

The fruit of his immaturity was the destruction of his church. This pastor walked away from the mediation and he walked away from his church all in a rage. Hundreds of people followed his lead and broke their membership vows, abandoning deep friendships in the process. The name of Christ in this community was tarnished. No unity. No reconciliation. No bearing with one another in love. Instead, just a bad ending to a bad situation because one pastor poured all of his passion and commitment into one statement:

“I already know that!”

“Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:10), “But love builds up.” There is a world of difference between mere head knowledge and the faith-filled, God-centered, application of that knowledge. True theological knowledge is defined by one word:

Love.

Love is the only thing that will apply knowledge so that truth becomes relevant to life:

“So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” 1 Corinthians 8:12

But:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” James 3:13

With wise and love-driven application of God’s truth to our everyday struggles and conflicts, we have the privilege and joy of loving our Father and his eternal children just as He has loved us:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love …” John 15:9-10

May God give us grace to redeem every conflict for His glory as our wisdom—our love—is on display (not merely our knowledge).

In the Lamb,
-Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)

Posted in Authentic Relationships in the Church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor | Leave a comment

“Hope permeates each chapter …”

Thanks for your patience re: our delayed postings as Dave and I are currently a little too busy actually serving churches to blog about it …

To tide you over, our gratitude goes out to Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal for this endorsement:

The Facts: Barthel and Edling tackle a subject most would prefer to ignore yet all have to face. Drawing from their experience with Peacemaker Ministries, the authors face the reality of conflict within churches head-on, including the devastating effects unresolved conflicts have on congregants and mission. But this is ultimately a book about redemption. Hope permeates each chapter. Multiple case studies provide nice balance to the theology and advice.

The Slant: Does anyone actually want to think about conflict? We pastors are especially prone to avoid this subject, unless it’s staring us in the face. But lest this book sound like the word equivalent of broccoli (you’ll eat it, but won’t like it), be assured that it’s more like a hearty dinner with family. Yes, there are some hard realities to face, such as our own complicity in conflicts, but there’s much to enjoy as well. The book is theologically rich, seasoned with wisdom that comes from years in the trenches of church conflict. The hope here is powerful: even our conflicts become opportunities for the gospel’s redemptive work.”

And I (Tara) would also like to bring to your attention a wonderful book by one of my favorite contemporary churchmen, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, that I received in the mail this week and just couldn’t put down until I had read every word. It is a beautiful, accessible, theologically-rich treatment of how our life together in the church is both “rooted in God the Son and grows up into the full resemblance of the Son because our union with Jesus is both the root and fruit of spiritual fellowship”:

The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship

I truly believe that Redeeming Church Conflicts would be needed much less if we all lived out the truths that Pastor Anyabwile exegetes in this book.

Posted in HOPE in the midst of conflict, Reviews of "Redeeming Church Conflicts"

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 3 of 3)

Q. Sometimes, even in a mature church, a time comes when a servant-shepherd pastor must be let go. In this situation, how should the pastor and his family, and the other church leaders and members respond so that they can all work together to redeem this difficult situation?

A. My last two blog entries in this short series have distinguished between two types of pastors/situations:

  • Those in ministry for career employment (“hired-hands” as described in John 10:12-13) who are “fired” from their position just as any person in a secular job is fired (Part 1); and
  • Those “servant-shepherd” pastors who are called to a life of humble sacrifice and suffering for their service, who are then persecuted for the sake of Christ’s righteousness (as described in Matthew 5:11-12) by being maltreated (and ultimately “fired”) by immature Christians in their churches (Part 2).

Today’s post addresses a third type of situation—one in which a servant-shepherd pastor is appropriately  let go by mature (wise, loving, God-glorifying) Christians.

A few notes before I begin …

First of all, I fully recognize that these three groupings of people and situations may seem too restrictive. I readily admit that most situations are actually somewhere in-between on the spectrum: many pastors truly desire to serve as servant-shepherds, but they also recognize that their calling is also their “job” in that they provide for their families through the income they earn through the pastorate. I also recognize that many church members and leaders likewise fall somewhere in between “mature” and “immature” on the spectrum—they may (immaturely) be persecuting their pastor for worldly reasons and using secular causes and means for firing him; but often, there is a mix of godliness and maturity in the situation that causes these situations to be far more “gray” than I am describing in this series.

But a blog entry can only be so long! And the focus of Tara’s and my book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, is the painful division engendered by the reality of conflict in the church. Thus, we hope that you will read all three of these blogs from a perspective of grace and “wisdom from Heaven” which we know from James 3 is “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit.” Seeking wisdom is particularly important today, as my personal observations and convictions about this topic will undoubtedly bring up many questions and ideas that I can’t possibly try to address. There are simply too many variables present when a pastor is let go from a church. To paraphrase our own words in Redeeming Church Conflicts by applying them to this blog series (rather than to our book):

Church conflict is complex. The various causes of church conflict, the personalities involved, the church’s polity, and the level of spiritual maturity among leaders and members will raise questions that no [blog series] could possibly address with specificity. Therefore, be careful and pray as you seek counsel from other church leaders and members about the application of [these posts] and various scriptural passages to your church’s specific situation. By seeking counsel from wise and spiritually mature Christians, all of us will hopefully avoid using any part of [this series] as a weapon to hurt others or to fulfill any sinful goals we might have. Plenty of biblical peacemaking principles have been taken out of context and forced on others in loveless and selfish ways. We pray this will never be the case with [these blog posts]. Instead, we pray that our efforts in [these blogs] will encourage and guide Christians and their churches in redemptive responses to conflicts—responses that are based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologian Dr. Dennis E. Johnson captures the heart of our concern when he writes: “In Scripture the starting point of instruction on right behavior is not a list of our duties, but a declaration of God’s saving achievement, bringing us into a relationship of favor with him.”

So, with all of those caveats in mind (my lawyerliness is really showing today) … how ought we to respond when we (wisely and lovingly) discern that it is time for a pastor to leave a specific church?

We ought to embrace God’s agenda for change and allow that change to produce holiness in all of us.

Will that change be easy? By no mean. There will undoubtedly be uncomfortable moments in leadership meetings when new ideas are discussed or information is analyzed and everyone involved (including the pastor) will begin to have that uncomfortable sense that God may be leading their church in a way that is not a good fit for the current pastor. Hopefully, everyone involved will be prayerful and careful (full of care) as small discussions begin to grow into larger discussions. Communication with other leaders (for example, elders to deacons or council members to bishops) will be intentional and clear. At all times, people will hold firmly to the standard set for speech in Ephesians 4:29—edifying, bringing God’s grace. There will be no gossip or slander. Love for God and neighbor will be the defining mark of every meeting, announcement, and decision. The pastor will never be gracelessly criticized. Instead, every person will guard him, build him up, and help him (and his family) to transition to his new pastorate.

That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? But we know that there will, of course, be bumps in the process. Immaturity and even outright sin will arise. But the pastor, his family, and every mature leader and layperson will embrace even those difficult and painful situations as opportunities ordained by God for growth in holiness. As Drs. Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane state in their must-read book, How People Change:

Making us holy is God’s unwavering agenda until we are taken home to be with him. He will do whatever he needs to produce holiness in us. He wants us to be a community of joy, but he is willing to compromise our temporal happiness in order to increase our Chrislikeness.

Wise and mature pastors, leaders, and members will recognize that this pastoral change is part of God’s plan for producing holiness in His eternal children. They will respond with light—truth, healing, beauty, compassion, and care—because their life goal is to reflect all of the characteristics of their Lord and King, Jesus Christ. But others? Sadly, they will respond with darkness—lies, distortions, relational injury, ugliness, judgment, and betrayal—because even though they claim to live for Jesus and His glory, they are ultimately motivated by their own selfish desires. They are willing to sacrifice the unity of the saints to fulfill their agendas. They do not pick up their cross and lay down their lives for their friends.

But even then, the wise and mature Christian will see even these attacks of darkness as opportunities to model Christlike humility and love because how we fight in the church differs significantly from how the world fights. Or it ought to.

I will close with just a few questions that you might consider in order to walk through your pastoral change with holiness:

  • How can we please and honor the Lord in this situation by respecting and honoring His under-shepherd, our pastor, even though we agree he should leave this church and continue his ministry elsewhere?
  • How do we guard our own hearts and minds through all of this so that our trust in God for our church (His church) is evident to everyone?
  • How can we continue to fulfill our duty to render “double-honor” (1 Timothy 5:17) to our pastor by meeting all of his and his families’ worldly needs during the transition period?
  • How can we best work with our pastor to help him continue his ministry during the transition period and into his next assignment in the Church (note the capital “C;” the Church is much larger than any one local congregation)?
  • How can we utilize pastoral change as an opportunity to help our immature brethren grow in Christ?
  • How can we guard the pastor’s family from harmful gossip and speculation?
  • As needed, how can we best use God’s plan of accountability (church discipline) to build his church by correcting the sinful behaviors of those acting in a manner inconsistent with their own profession of faith?
  • How can we bless our present pastor by ensuring that we call another true servant-shepherd pastor to follow in his steps building on the foundation he has faithfully laid?
  • How can we craft our pastor’s legacy of godliness as a model for future pastoral relationships?

Over the past two decades I have witnessed how both “hired-hands” and true servant-shepherds respond to dismissal from their pastoral office.  The thing that has surprised me (and inspired me!) the most has been not only how the latter personally responded but how they also prepared their fellow church leaders for the trial. I have not seen servant-shepherds respond with anger (although frequently with a degree of sorrow), and not with self-justification (although frequently in defense of God’s Word).  As they have led other church leaders and members into an understanding of what being “called to the ministry” means (a life-long quest for God’s glory wherever their unique contribution to God’s Kingdom can be made) they have imparted an understanding of the cost of redemption. While we use the word “redemption” frequently and in different settings, are we remembering that the cost was the death of Jesus, the Son of God? Church leaders and church members tutored in the message of the “cost” have been equipped to see God’s much grander plan for his Kingdom when they face even the loss of a beloved pastor who is being unleashed for even greater Kingdom service and sacrifice. To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Praying for peace as we await “The Day” of The Shepherd’s return (Hebrews 10:25; 2 Peter 3:10)!

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts", How to Fire Your Pastor

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 2 of 3)

If you’ve read last week’s blog, “How to Fire Your Pastor — Part 1,” then you know that its content only applies when the pastor is best characterized as a “hired-hand” (see John 10:12-13). In contrast, today’s post addresses the issue of letting a pastor go when the pastor is a true servant-shepherd. In these situations, there may be godly and appropriate reasons why he must leave. There could be compelling personal considerations, changing demographics, a difference of opinion or purpose that is not sin-driven but may reflect a differing philosophy of ministry, a humble recognition of the fact that the spiritual gifts of another may better serve the changing environment, etc. But, sadly, there may also be sinful reasons why the servant-shepherd pastor is being let go. The “firing” may actually be revealing spiritual immaturity in a few (or many) members of the flock.

It is the latter situation—sinful reasons for the firing—that usually brings up the greatest amount of hurt and destructive conflict for the pastor, his family, and the rest of the church. This is the focus of today’s post:

How does a servant-shepherd pastor redeem even his unjust firing for God’s glory and for personal and corporate spiritual growth?

First, let’s consider the background for when a servant-shepherd pastor is sinfully fired (treated just like any employee at any old job).

We live in a day and age when even Christians, having been conformed to the priorities and patterns of our loud culture through its incessant demands, forget they have been called to hunger for the things Jesus hungered for: righteousness, mercy, peace, humility, compassion, and justice, to name but a few. People conformed to the pattern of this world (see Romans 12:2) can lose focus and even become intolerant of a pastor who models Christ-like obedience and humility in their confused quest for greater “relevance” in the world. Whenever church people begin to measure the “success” of their pastor by making comparison with what passes as successful in this world, it is not unusual for persecution of the pastor to follow. How should a true servant-shepherd respond?

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12

Furthermore …

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 2:24-25

A servant-shepherd who has preached, taught, and modeled Christ by manifesting all of the fruit of the Spirit does not respond to conflict with conflict. He responds with the message of redemption and reconciliation. The issues of concern that go by secular titles (“wrongful termination,” “due process,” etc.) seem trite and insignificant to the true servant-shepherd because he doesn’t carry concern for his “job” but, rather, is consumed with a passion for the souls of God’s sheep (who are also his sheep), even those souls seeking his dismissal. Having been called to the ministry by God, his vision is one of care and compassion even for (especially for!) the spiritually weak, confused, and immature.

And so we find ourselves at the real questions in this situation:

  • When immature Christians try to force a servant-shepherd pastor out of office, how will the other church leaders and members—those who are mature in Christ—respond? Will they look at their pastor and recognize the presence of grace and godliness in their midst? Or will they be taken over by worldly goals and patterns?
  • And how about the pastor and his family? Will they confidently continue to trust in God, even in the face of persecution? Will they keep an eternal perspective and see God’s glory at work, even if their own personal story becomes one of being forced to leave the church on account of righteousness? Will they remember that how they respond to even this persecution is going to be a part of their lasting legacy at this church?

From God’s perspective, “firing” one of His under-shepherds is the epitome of foolishness. In Psalm 14:1 we are told:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Whenever God’s people seek removal of a true servant-shepherd pastor due to any priority inconsistent with the Lord’s revealed will, they essentially affirm in their hearts that there is no God. In their foolishness, they deny that God could place in their midst one who would speak and model God’s Word of truth in love. Because God’s truth is frequently hard to hear given our culture’s demands and its loud voice, it is not surprising that churches do seek the removal of godly pastors. And shouldn’t that cause conflict? Shouldn’t there be people rising up to oppose the ungodly acts of unrighteousness seeking to be imposed on others? And the true servant-shepherd will not run from conflict (as the hired-hand does), but he will stay and guide his sheep in the way of redemption and reconciliation regardless of the outcome. He will do that with care and compassion because he knows that God will sovereignly grow his people up in maturity through such encounters. He always remembers that:

God is present in the company of the righteous. Psalm 14:5b

And this presence reveals itself even when conflict comes to the church.

One closing note to servant-shepherd pastors: In at least half of the church conflict intervention cases I have consulted on, by the time mediation services were engaged, the pastors had already fled the congregation. Rather than staying to shepherd their people at the point of their greatest spiritual need, these men proved the charge that they were merely “hired hands” when they saw the wolf of conflict coming! It grieves me to say it, but I do believe that such men are no longer worthy of the title “pastor” because they did not prioritize the care of the flock over their own personal or professional “needs.”

I know these situations are frightening and often infuriating. This is exactly how an attack from a real wolf would be! If you are reading this and you just found out that you are being fired by your church, you are probably flooded with adrenaline and tempted to give in to fight or flight. Please fight this temptation with all of your strength! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be fooled. Stay the course! As needed, repent, confess, and change. But stay the course. Don’t stay merely to contribute to the conflict through self-serving defensiveness, but rather lead your people through the conflict by redeeming it for God’s glory and your (and God’s!) sheep’s spiritual growth. You can always leave later if that seems wise and would serve God’s interests, but first build a legacy of sacrifice that will leave a lasting impression and enduring memory that will change your sheep for their future in the church. Even foolish sheep, after all, need a model of what a true shepherd is like.

And for the rest of the leaders and church members? Tune in next week to read my entry on how you should have dealt with your servant-shepherd pastor, rather than merely firing him in a worldly manner.

For the glory of the Lamb,
Dave Edling

PS
To read part 3 of this “How to Fire Your Pastor” series, click here.

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Confrontation, How to Fire Your Pastor

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 1 of 3)

Q. Getting rid of a pastor can cause a lot of conflict. What should be happening for both the pastor and other church leaders and members when everyone is figuring out if the pastor should be let go? How should a church let a pastor go?

A. It depends (typical lawyer answer, eh?) …

  • Is your pastor a “hired-hand” (see John 10:12-13) or a servant-shepherd ready to lay down his life for God’s sheep?
  • Is the tradition and history of the church to hire a man to lead by fulfilling a “position description” or is the attitude of everyone (pastor, leaders, and members) reflective of “calling” only God’s chosen under-shepherd who through supernatural spiritual gifting humbly models Christ by imitating His sacrifice?
  • Is your pastor one who curries favor with people or one who pushes forward Christ and the Holy Spirit’s agenda while making nothing of himself?
  • Do people of the church want a pastor who is popular by the world’s standards or one who is poor in spirit (MT 5:3), one who mourns (MT 5:4), one who is meek (MT 5:5), one whose hunger and thirst is for righteousness (MT 5:6), one who is merciful (MT 5:7), one who is pure of heart (MT 5:8), one who is a peacemaker (MT 5:9), and one willing to accept persecution because of righteousness (MT 5:10)?
  • Has the church “filled the pulpit” with an appealing and clever orator or a man of godly character who is qualified as one who is above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, a model manager of his own family, and one who has a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Timothy 3:2-7)?
  • Is your pastor displaying evidence of the influence and fruit of this world (loud, pushing his agenda, seeking man’s approval, demanding his way, proud, arrogant, etc.) or the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)?

If your pastor, and the people of your church, are predominantly described by any of the characteristics and/or descriptive statements appearing before the word “or” in the above questions you most probably have a mere hired-hand for a pastor. Firing a hired-hand is no different than firing any other person holding a secular job: you must be knowledgeable of and comply with your state’s statues and laws concerning employment to avoid a charge of “wrongful termination.” It will mean dotting all of the “i’s” and crossing all of the “t’s” of procedure dictated by legally-mandated due process considerations. And, it will mean “managing church conflict” among those who will be driven by worldly expectations and sentiments akin to those experienced when the best player on the local high school sport’s teams is benched because he or she is failing academically (howls of indignant outrage). But the church will get through it even though some people may leave. That won’t be the concern in such a church because the focus will be merely on answering the question, “Who can we hire into the position next?”

But …

If you have a servant-shepherd pastor, and the people of your church are characterized by the statements following the word “or” above, then you have an entirely different situation … an entirely different problem. That discussion comes, Lord willing, next week in “How to Fire Your Pastor — Part 2.”

-Dave Edling

PS
This post has two follow-up posts: parts 2 and 3.

Posted in Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Confrontation, How to Fire Your Pastor | 4 Comments

In Church Conflict (as in War), The Malice of the Wicked is Reinforced by the Weakness of the Virtuous

Over the holidays, I began reading Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War (the abridged version not knowing if I would live long enough to read his entire six volume set!).  In one of the opening paragraphs Churchill writes of his purpose in setting to paper his experiences:

It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of democratic states, unless they are welded together into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued even for ten or fifteen years at a time. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need of a broad path of international action pursued by many states in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of national politics.

As I read those words I was struck by the truth that with some minor tweaking they would apply with equal force to the state of today’s church as it seeks to remain relevant:

It is my purpose, as one who has been active in the church, to show how easily the tragedy of the irrelevance of the church on modern culture could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of so-called tolerant churches, unless they are welded together in the uncompromising truth of the Bible’s Gospel of Jesus Christ, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to proud yet confused masses; how, even in matters of eternal self-preservation, no consistent theology is pursued for even a few years until replaced with the latest spiritual fad. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of eternal immortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and the quiet life may be found to lead directly to the bull’s eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need of following the narrow path of Christ pursued by many churches in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of the popular, majority culture.

Of course, that parallel is not perfect and my attempt to draw comparisons may not satisfy you, but one element is clear: unless those who know God’s Word are without waver as they intentionally determine to faithfully live and practice the Scriptures as the virtuous strong, the malice of the wicked will be reinforced! Dr. Timothy Witmer’s wonderful statement concerning church leadership is absolutely true:

Faithful shepherds protect their flocks not only from harmful outside influences but from the self-serving among the sheep. Many congregations have experienced the intimidation of bullies within their midst when leaders fail to take responsibility to shepherd the flock. It is often the strong-willed, outspoken, highly opinioned folk who fill the void. There will always be leaders—the issue is whether they are the leaders called and gifted by God to shepherd his flock or those who push themselves forward so that they can push others around. (Quoted in Redeeming Church Conflicts at page 117)

Destructive, unredeemed conflict in the church usually is a result of some who are willing to compromise God’s clear plan and path for his church in total submission to Christ. Without virtuous church leaders and members willing to confront the schemes of the wicked, the malice of the wicked will be reinforced. Whenever we value tolerance over truth, lose persistence and conviction in the one Gospel of Christ, or seek merely safety and the quiet disengaged life, we run the risk and danger of becoming irrelevant. That may sound harsh but look at the reality of our culture today. Where do you see culture being informed and conformed to the image of Christ and his kingdom by the relevance of the church?

Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke said nearly three hundred years ago, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” That is as true in the church as it is other venues (just as is Churchill’s statement above concerning the malice of the wicked being reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous is likewise true). My prayer is that we will encourage our leaders to be both virtuous and strong by being so ourselves as we follow the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords as his virtuous strong.

In the Lamb,
Dave Edling

Posted in Abusive churches, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Confrontation, Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts", Postmodern Relativism and Church Conflict

What should we do when our church’s leadership is boldly rewarding and promoting their own “inner circle”?

Q: We have all heard of “cliques” in the church, but what should one do when it becomes obvious that the church’s leadership culture boldly rewards, acknowledges, and promotes their own elite “inner circle?” This is occurring while at the same time others are being ignored, neglected, or avoided.

A: First, we start with biblical truth! God’s propositional truth regarding any form of “favoritism” is discussed extensively in the Scriptures. God does not show favoritism (see Acts 10:34-35; and Romans 2:11), and we are equally commanded to not show favoritism (see Ephesians 6:9-10; Colossians 3:25; and 1 Timothy 5:21). The specific portion of Gods’ Word that most clearly demonstrates that there shall be no favoritism in the church, however, is James 2:1-10. Anyone practicing favoritism is spoken of there as a “lawbreaker”: “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers (verse 9).

Second, knowing with certainty that any practice of favoritism in the church and among Christians is forbidden as sin now brings to the forefront your question, but stated in a slightly different way: “What should one do when they see a sinful practice occurring in the church and it is the leaders of the church that seem to be caught in that practice?” Do you see how starting with God’s standard for faith and practice lays the foundation for asking the next best question that will most accurately help you make decisions and focus your next steps? That is a critical step when seeking to use the Scriptures as a guide. But even here we have to be careful. Look carefully at how I have restated your question; it is a compound question that contains a presupposition. The next thing we should do is break the question down into its parts and then strip out any presuppositions. The first question would then seem to be: “What should one do when they see a sinful practice occurring in the church?” The next question may be stated as follows: “What should one when do when they see a church leader apparently caught in sin?” I use the word “caught” here as it is used in Galatians 6:1 where it does not simply mean that an act of sin has been discovered. Rather, the meaning there is that the victim of sin has been overtaken by surprise and is in need of mending (restoring, rescuing). I believe you know the answers to both of those questions as now stated. Every person needs the benefit of accountability, even pastors and other leaders. Paul, writing to the Corinthians says, “Don’t you know that a little yeast [sin] works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are (1 Cor. 5:6-7).” Sin in the church is to be dealt with; it is to be expelled so that the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover lamb, may be celebrated not with the old yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast [without sin], the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7-8).” Leaders are not exempt from being taken captive by sin. Read again Ezekiel chapter 34. God holds those who would be shepherds accountable for their ministries. Hebrews 13:17 says that such men “must give an account.” There are also some very important words at 1 Peter 2:13-17 that would be helpful in breaking the cycle of abuse you have described. Be a rescuing servant to your leaders and let them know of your concerns and why you believe their practices have brought sin into the place where there is to be no yeast.

– Dave Edling

Posted in Abusive churches, Uncategorized