Leader Conflicts: Opportunities to Model Holiness

Q. My question is about conflicts between leaders. For example: (1) Some of the elders want to use a different English translation of the Bible in worship than what we have been using and others don’t; (2) Some of the deacons want to financially support on a regular basis a single mother in the church while others think this would just enable her not to work hard. These kinds of leader conflicts are threatening our church.

A. Disputable matters will always be surfacing in the church. Such matters are opportunities to remember that even though we are “one in Christ” (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:10) we retain different personalities, preferences, and opinions. These differences are not to be condemned but embraced and stewarded for God’s glory. Both examples of the kinds of leader disputes you describe are over “material” issues, that is, questions of a material substance rather than questions of personal behavior, sin, etc. Substantive questions like these not involving the need for repentance, confession, and forgiveness are the daily fare of most churches.

The Bible says some very practical things about resolving disputable matters:

  • “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Romans 14:1).
  • “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14).
  • “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart” (Proverbs 18:18).
  • “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1Timothy 2:8).
  • “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1).

Several principles surface from these verses:

First, accept the fact that disputable matters will arise. Don’t be surprised or taken aback simply because such matters come up as part of God’s plan for building mature Christians.

Second, keep a material issue a material issue and don’t allow it to become a personal issue. Too often when church leaders don’t immediately see eye-to-eye over something like a favored translation or providing financial support the conflict becomes personal… “Because you won’t agree with me you are now my enemy!” That is a sure sign of spiritual immaturity that will lead to sinful responses unworthy of any church leader. Church leaders have no excuse for such immaturity since they have been (hopefully) character qualified and called to be models of holiness among God’s people.

Third, a solid decision-making process within the church must be established and followed. Most well organized churches by way of their polity structure have dispute resolution practices built into their governing documents be they corporate bylaws or other written policies. Those provisions may call for a vote among leaders, decision by some other final authority, appeal to a higher organizational entity, or final decision by the whole congregation by vote. Whatever mechanism for final decision-making exists, leaders must be willing to accept, follow, and support that decision even if they don’t personally agree with it. That is what it means to be in “subjection to the brethren,” a common vow that church leaders make before they are placed in a position of leadership and authority (see Ephesians 5:21; Hebrews 13:17; and 1 Peter 2:13-18).

Matters to be resolved by leaders are excellent opportunities to model holiness. They can become so when leaders remember that that priority outweighs any other consideration. Any material issue in the church will never be important enough to trump the interests of Christ which are spiritual and about men’s holy character. Pray for and encourage your leaders to be wise, but mostly to never lose sight of their real shepherding goal.

– 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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