Can a Whole Church Forgive a Church Leader?

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

-Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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