VideosThe Acts 15 Model for Redeeming Church Conflicts
Ken Sande's Endorsement of Redeeming Church Conflicts
- Forgiveness is at the Heart of Every Redemptive Encounter in the Church: In prior posts we have noted the dist... bit.ly/12YISQN 1 year ago
- When to Leave a Church: A few weeks ago in response to my blog about church membership, member vows, and what ... bit.ly/1BMN7uI 1 year ago
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I have always believed that the highest character trait of a Christian is humility. There are many statements in the Bible that support my position. Here are just a few:
- This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2b
- Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
- Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
- Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, to show true humility toward all men. Titus 3:1-2
I was thinking of these verses last week as Tara and I worked on a magazine article on the topic of responding to narcissists in your church. Initially, I thought it a bit strange when the editor asked us to write on this topic. After all, neither Tara nor I carry special education or training in diagnosing or dealing with narcissism. But the editor asked us because he rightly discerned that many times, church conflicts involve people who could rightly be described as narcissists:
Having excessive and grandiose interest in self; displaying extreme arrogance and a sense of entitlement; full of hubris (overweening pride) and often unwilling to accept any hint of criticism.
In fact, it breaks my heart to say it, but all too often the most narcissistic person at the center of a church conflict is not just any old narcissist, he is often a narcissistic pastor. Rather than teaching his congregation that he is nothing but a mere messenger and then doing everything in his power to deflect praise away from self and toward the true author of the message, the narcissistic pastor relishes the tickling of his ears even unto the utter destruction of his congregation.
The human ego accepts praise and the result is pride in self (narcissism). The first victim is the pastor. The second is his congregation. This is what the dangerous downward spiral looks like:
- The pastor preaches a powerful message that really communicates.
- Church members congratulate him on his fine work as a powerful communicator of difficult theological material.
- The pastor is praised for “changing lives” and is pleased that the church members respond so positively.
- The next week the same thing happens—praise, adoration, applause … for “the man.”
- Week after week, the pastor receives this praise and feeds his ego by gathering close to himself only the people who agree with him and praise him; he tunes out (or even destroys) anyone who dares to challenge the view that he is a great man (the most theologically astute person in the church; the only real visionary; the one whose passions and ideas are “right”).
- And then something devastating happens … the pastor begins to believe he is a great man; that he alone is the one making the real difference for the cause of Christ in his church.
- The pastor and his congregation are destroyed.
The greatest danger to your pastor’s spiritual growth and ability to lead you into a life of holiness is your adoration. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Pastor—you must recognize the danger signs of growing narcissism in your own life and repent rightly:
- Pride in your voice, appearance, intellect, and cleverness
- A willing acceptance of the praise of man
- Self-confidence in your “high” position
- A growing inability to accept any hint of criticism or feedback; listening only to those who agree with you and continue to feed your ego
- Impatience and criticism to anything done in the church that fails to live up to your perceived standard of “excellence”
- When conflicts develop in your church, you fail to lead as a shepherd and instead respond as a know-it-all autocrat
Other church leaders and members—you must take steps to protect your pastor and congregation from any growing narcissism in your pastor’s heart:
- Pray for your pastor—that he would be a truly holy and humble man who eschews the hollow praise of men and pours himself out only for the praise of God and the building of God’s Kingdom (never the kingdom of man)
- Encourage humility as the most valued character quality of any church leader
- Define “success” as faith and holiness, not numerical success that reflects the values of the world
- Thank God, not your pastor, for his spiritual gifts
- Be a genuine friend to your pastor—always ready to speak the truth in love since he too struggles with sin, disappointment, and loss
- Never allow your church to be defined by cliques or any “inner circle” of people in a place of prominence with your pastor
- Faithfully exercise your own spiritual gifts so that your leaders are not forced into ministry areas where they are not gifted (see 1 Corinthians chapter 12)
For all of us, may we strive to never “think more highly of ourselves than we ought” (Romans 12:3).
For the King of Kings,
– Dave Edling
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 my last 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.
Q. How can I know what to do in my church conflict when I don’t know how other people are going to act or respond?
A. Your question is a good one. It reveals a fear that many Christians have over “what might the outcome be?” in their church conflicts. In other words, many people are paralyzed by endings. Their fear of the unknown stops them from making a good beginning. Following the Bible’s pattern for conflict resolution seems too uncertain and “iffy” for many so, fearing a potential outcome they may not prefer (and one out of their control), they simply choose to adopt methods that they have had experience with in the “world” (such as exertion of power, manipulation of others, withholding money, control through majority rule, etc.). Such people can’t think about where they are now or what they are doing without being consumed by the thought of how things will end. Rather than focusing on obedience they worry about the uncertain and unknown potential result.
Worry seems to be at the heart of this dynamic. Many hundreds of wonderful Christian books have been written on worry and how the Christian is to overcome this sin. Of course, while these books may be wonderful aids, God’s Word alone summarizes them all:
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Matthew 6:27
Our Lord’s great ethical exhortations captured in what we call “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) clearly and cogently teach us that we have no control through mere worry over what will happen, and, therefore, we are to abandon any hope that such a strategy may prove fruitful. And yet we cling to our fears and anxieties as if we have never heard that this is a losing course of action. We worry because we are afraid of unknown outcomes, outcomes that we think we can control, and our continual fears and anxieties drive us away from the good counsel of God’s Word toward the poor pattern of worldliness and sin. That path feeds church conflict.
If it is truly our fears that generate worry shouldn’t we search and learn all we can from God’s Word about that unproductive state of being and emotion? Is God telling us the truth when he says:
Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe. Proverbs 29:25
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7
Trust, love, and care are God’s pattern and it is to be these biblical concepts that define the pattern of response for us, his eternal children, whenever we face church conflicts. Jesus said “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34). Matthew Henry commenting on this verse states:
“Let us mind present duty, and then leave events to God; do the work of the day, and then let tomorrow bring its work along with it. It is the will of the Lord Jesus that his disciples should not be their own tormentors, nor make their passage through the world more dark and unpleasant, by their own apprehension of troubles, than God has made it by the troubles themselves.”
I would add, don’t let those worries about what might happen tomorrow stop you from doing today what you know is the right thing to do today. Doing the next right thing demonstrates your trust in God, your love for your church and its members, and the care you have been called to offer in times of trial and hardship. Those are all elements of redeeming church conflicts and you can, by God’s grace, make that good beginning unfettered by doubts of the outcome because “ His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who has called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Recently, I read a passage from a book I 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,
Week after week the most frequently searched topic that lands people at this website is “How to Fire Your Pastor.” If you are a regular reader of this site you may recall that I wrote a three part series under that title several months ago. My reaction to this traffic coming to our site because of that search terminology is one of both sadness and revelation. Sadness because we desperately need faithful pastors in our churches, and revelation because apparently some people believe the best (wisest, most God-glorifying) step to take would be to fire their pastors, so they are looking for that advice.
Today, I would like to encourage you to pause and take a step back from your plans to fire your pastors and instead, consider how you might help them to become the faithful shepherds God has called them to be.
The truth is, barring some sort of overt, heinous sin (which sometimes, yes, appropriately leads to the immediate firing of a pastor), most pastors are “let go” (really, fired) for reasons that could have, and should have, been addressed by many more people than just the pastor. For example, you may be ready to fire your pastor because he is disorganized and often drops administrative details. Did you hire him for his exegetical, scholarly, preaching/teaching skills and then make plans to surround him with people who are strong administratively? Has he asked for an assistant and have you denied him that year after year? What about personality clashes? Have you observed a growing conflict between your pastor and another influential person in your church—and done nothing about it? Have you been a faithful peacemaker to assist these Christians in conflict? Or have you stood back, shook your head and said, “Too bad!”; while you waited for the explosion that recently happened?
How well have you loved your pastor? Really loved him with a faithful, abiding, prayerful love?
Before you take steps to fire your current pastor and then hire in a new one and treat him the same way … perhaps you should consider the following four responsibilities all church members bear toward their pastors:
- Members owe their pastors love (despite their pastors’ weaknesses). Too many churches place unreasonable expectations on their pastors. Those expectations become the standard of performance rather than the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Bible do we find perfection manifested in humanity except in our Lord Jesus. Unfortunately, many people expect their pastor to be as perfect as their Savior. Rather than realizing a pastor’s role is to point people to their only true hope in Christ, too many people look to their pastor for that model of perfection. While pastors are to be models of holiness and live lives reflecting the character of Christ (as we all are!), it is unrealistic to expect any human to fulfill what only Christ can do. Church members have a responsibility to love their pastor by seeing him as a fellow follower of the Lord dealing with the same struggles and life challenges they do as a fallen creature redeemed solely by grace through faith in Christ.
- Members owe their pastors honesty. When disappointment surfaces over any aspect of the pastoral role, be it personality, preaching or teaching performance, leadership or character, members are called to be faithful friends by going personally, quietly, quickly and gently to their pastor with their specific concern. Before going, members are to remember to “get the log out of their own eye first” (Matthew 7:5), remembering that their goal is to be a friend and fellow pilgrim with their brother of faith (Hebrews 11:13-16) and not a critic bringing a message of discouragement. Members have a responsibility to help their pastor change just as they need to change by allowing God’s Word to be “more loud and vivid than previous life experience” (to quote Dr. David Powlison). They do that by not having an attitude of the judge or critic, but by coming alongside as a fellow servant with gentle and honest concern. Church members have the responsibility to come to their pastors with any concern only when they come ready to pray for and be part of the solution as a faithful partner in ministry.
- Members owe their pastors respect. Every church member owes every other member respect because they are image bears of The Father, their creator. We each, as believers in Christ, know we are different because we have been given a new heart, a renewed heart enabled by faith to both see the created things of this world as evidence of God’s love, and to read, believe, and trust his Word in the Scriptures as eternal truth displayed so that we might know more fully His faithfulness in Christ. As new creatures we are, therefore, “compelled by the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14) to see our pastors with eyes of compassion for whom Christ died and to respect the unique demands placed on them; those who have been called to bring His Word to our ears and hearts remembering that God’s Word is, at times, difficult for us to hear because it convicts us of our own sin…our guilt and shame. But pastors also bring us hope in Christ that our sins are forgiven and our guilt and shame no longer the bondage capable of holding us in personal condemnation. The role of being a messenger of conviction and freedom is incredibly demanding and we owe our pastors a special measure of respectfulness as they balance this difficult task.
- (And I, Tara, would add that …) Members owe their pastors prayer and encouragement. Both of my children, since they were three years old, could go right down the list and name our shepherd-overseers because they have prayed for them over and over again. (“And God bless Pastor Alfred, Pastor Jason, Elder Schaner, Elder Feralio, Elder Petsch …”) And they have regularly sent hand-made cards, pictures, and notes to them (as have Fred and I–well, cards and thank you notes, but not hand-made). Why? Because shepherd-overseers have a very serious and important job to do. It is not a light thing to take on the responsibility for the souls of sheep. These are busy men with jobs and families and many duties in addition to their shepherding responsibilities—surely the very least we can do for them is to be regularly praying for them and thanking them for their care! Plus, God forbid, if any of our hearts ever become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and one of our pastors has to “leave the 99” to come after our wandering heart with the (loving, painful) ministration of the rod and staff … well … their redemptive ministry has a much higher likelihood of “success” if we have a relationship established with them. As Ken Sande says, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” So we are all called to build relationship now so that we can have the accountability and discipline of rules as needed.
The next time you find yourself considering whether to side with the group who is calling for the pastor to be fired, please remember that you have a responsibility to him that is consistent with the responsibility he has to you: love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement. That is what God calls us all to do as his eternal children:
In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
Many churches recognize an annual “Pastor Appreciation Month” in October. How might you take tangible steps to show your pastor love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement this month—and every month?
For the Glory of Christ’s Church,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)
A few weeks ago I wrote that the most frequently used search term that brings people to this site is “how to fire your pastor.” I lamented that fact because we desperately need God’s supernaturally gifted and theologically trained leaders who are so committed to God’s kingdom that people in the pews are left with a sense of awesome respect for what God has done in raising up a mere creature to be a proclaimer of God’s faithfulness to his people, his chosen race.
The second most frequently used search term for our site is a phrase: “causes of church conflicts.” People are apparently trying to understand why their church conflicts are happening and what they should be wary of as their church conflicts unfold.
Tara and I address this topic (causes of church conflicts) at length in Redeeming Church Conflicts, but I wonder if perhaps this search term is pointing to a different question; not just factual patterns and examples, but “the core dynamic.” Something that goes beyond the various presenting symptomatic issues to reveal one commonality. One root cause.
In thinking through the various conflicted churches I have helped over the decades, and also after reviewing the fact patterns and case studies we included in our book, I see one clear commonality: worldliness. Our churches are wracked by destructive conflict because we are too often “mere infants in Christ”; more concerned with the pattern of this world than of God’s eternity to come. Paul, when addressing the divisions that racked the church at Corinth, identified this very problem as the root of church conflict:
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 1 Corinthians 3:1-3
This is the heart of the matter: God expects His eternal children who inhabit His church to be more than mere men! And that means to not be worldly. Rather than being driven by narrow passions, God expects us to live on an entirely different plain and not bring the divisiveness that defines the world into His church. Are we still worldly? That is a question that every church in conflict should be carefully asking itself. And if your conflict is destroying the unity of the saints, promoting divisions, backbiting, slander, factions, anger, rage, bitterness, and malice? Then the answer will always be (shamefully), “Yes.”
It’s been years since Tara or I were in law school, but we never forget certain Latin phrases from our legal training and one supports this assertion perfectly:
Res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself.
That’s Paul’s argument: if you are “biting and devouring each other” in your church conflict (Galatians 5:15), then you are still worldly. The thing speaks for itself.
Consider the conflict your church is facing. It may have started from impure motives and an intentional focus on doing harm. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, there is a disagreement. Or someone becomes personally hurt. Then what happens? Do we listen to the loud culture around us? Are our minds so attuned to the materialistic, self-driven, pleasure-oriented, short-tempered, envious message of the world that even we who call ourselves Christians respond just like unbelievers? Does our worldly conditioning manifest itself in graceless, loveless, words and actions? Do we pour into the church destructive venom and sinful bitterness whenever our personal desire (or our group’s desire) is not satisfied? If so, then we act exactly like those of the world.
Worldliness is the root cause of church conflicts. So what is the cure? Listen to God’s Word:
Do not deceive yourselves. If anyone thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20
When we have conflicts in the church we merely prove that the wisdom of the world has become our standard, our level of wisdom. From God’s perspective, that is just foolishness. And such foolishness reveals that we have been deceived:
Do not be deceived. 1 Corinthians 6:9b
When we fight in the church just like those of the world fight in the world, we are fools who have been deceived. But God gives us the way to guard against such deception:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
How are we transformed by the renewing of our mind? How do we guard against deception? We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone transforms us. He renews us. He gives us true wisdom. He graciously protects us from deception. But remember! Believing means acting. If you really want to see what you believe, consider how you live. Are you dying to self? Forsaking the treasurers of this world (fame, comfort, ease, pleasure)? Do you engage with the hurts of others? Live a life that is heavenly-oriented and not worldly? Do you love, pray for, bless … live at peace with even the most difficult people in your church (or do you just avoid them)?
When we are transformed by the renewing of our minds; when the finished work of Jesus is manifested in His gracious, continuing work of conforming us to His likeness; when Jesus renews and transforms us by His grace … then we will root out this foundational cause of church conflict (worldliness) because the things of earth will hold no power over us. We will pray and serve and bless and live all for the glory of the Triune God and the building up (the edification) of His children.
Just as we desperately need pastors who are supernaturally gifted leaders in our churches, even more so we need Christians in the pews who are supernaturally gifted church members who have intentionally rejected the world’s philosophy and influence. Then, and only then, will destructive church conflicts be seen for what they really are: mere deception. And we will see clearly that the way of the Lord is different:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18
In the Lamb,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)
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:
- Lack of Appreciation
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:
- Strengthen the believers,
- Encourage the believers,
- Comfort the believers, and
- Edify the believers
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,
One thing I become angry over is all the anger I see when church members fight among themselves. That means I have to hear the apostle’s words to the Ephesian church with heightened perspicacity. Anger is almost always present in church conflict so I could almost always be angry as I seek to help those stuck in their church conflicts.
My good friend Dr. Robert Jones, professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Uprooting Anger (P & R Publishing, 2005), has helped me immensely to understand my own anger. Dr. Jones defines anger as:
“Our anger is our whole person response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil.”
Dr. Jones explains that this definition imbeds five key ideas: (1) anger is an “active response” (it is an action, something we do not something we have), and (2) it is a “whole-personed” active response; it involves our entire being.
“Anger is more than mere emotion, volition, cognition, or behavior. Scripture resists simplistic schemes. Anger is complex. It comprises the whole person and encompasses our whole package of beliefs, feelings, actions, and desires.”
For the purpose of this discussion on church conflict and anger, it is the final three aspects of the definition that are most helpful:
(3) “Our anger is a response against something” (anger reacts to some provocation);
(4) “Our anger involves a negative moral judgment, that is, it arises from our judicial sense and functions under the dynamic of judgmentalism,” and
(5) “Our anger involves a judgment against perceived evil” (our moral judgment arises from our personal perception).
In my experiences working with churches in conflict, it is these three factors that are at work: some provocation invokes a negative judgment based on a personal perception (that may be accurate or inaccurate) that then results in an angry response. Dr. Jones explains the sinfulness of the dynamic:
“We call it a ‘negative’ moral judgment not because it is always sinful but because it opposes the perceived evil. It casts negative mental votes against unjust actions. It determines that all offenders must change, be punished, or be removed. It issues mental death-penalty verdicts against the guilty. No wonder Jesus taught that anger is the moral equivalent of murder (see Matthew 5:21-22).”
In a group setting, anger can be infectious. One person venting their personal perceptions against their perceived evil can ignite a church firestorm:
- A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1
- An angry man stirs up dissention, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. Proverbs 29:22
- For as churning the milk produces butter, and as the twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife. Proverbs 30:33
Even with all these warnings church conflicts continue to be fueled by angry people pursuing their narrow agendas rather than seeing that their judgmentalism does not bring about the kind of change that may be needed and healthy in and for the church. Just as my anger against anger does not produce any benefit neither does the anger of church members bring about a result that would reflect God’s agenda for his church: a united body of believers at peace (Ephesians 4:1-6).
But what about righteous anger some will ask? Wasn’t our Lord angry at times? Doesn’t the Bible speak of God’s anger? Again, Dr. Jones’ counsel is right on. He notes three criteria of righteous anger:
- Righteous anger reacts against actual sin: “Righteous anger does not result from merely being inconvenienced or from violations of personal preference or human tradition.”
- Righteous anger focuses on God and His Kingdom, Rights, and Concerns, not me and my kingdom, rights, and concerns: “Righteous anger focuses on how people offend God and his name, not me and my name.”
- Righteous anger is accompanied by other godly qualities and expresses itself in godly ways: “Righteous anger remains self-controlled. It keeps its head without cursing, screaming, raging, or flying off the handle. Nor does it spiral downward in self-pity or despair. It does not ignore people, snub people, or withdraw from people. Righteous anger leads to godly expressions of worship, ministry, and obedience. It shows concern for the well-being of others.”
God’s Word corrects our ideas about anger. We desperately need that correction because the message of the loud culture we live in sends a contrary message. If we are truly going to redeem our conflicts for God’s glory and our spiritual growth then we must learn all we can about our anger and the anger of others so that we don’t sin in our anger.
In the Lamb,
In just a few days, we will be gathering in Denver with peacemakers from around the world to study, pray, and fellowship together at the 2012 Peacemaker Conference. This will be the first time we have co-taught together since Redeeming Church Conflicts was published last May, but it is certainly not our first time serving together. Back when we were on staff at Peacemakers, we could pretty much finish each other’s sentences during Peacemaker Seminars because we had heard each other’s teaching illustrations so many times. (We’d have to be careful to not laugh before the punchline too.) Good times. And we’re looking very forward to even more good times this coming week.
To help us to prepare for our two workshops together, we recently reviewed the fact patterns for some conflicted churches we have both been helping. (That’s one of the reasons why our blog has been quieter than normal for the last few weeks … sometimes we just have to prioritize actually serving conflicted churches over writing about serving conflicted churches.) Of course, we keep all identifying information confidential, even from each other, whenever we are not hired together. But the broad brushstrokes of our experiences were so similar, that we thought they might be of encouragement to you too. So here are just a few stories:
Two Pastors, then Two Families, then Their Church Leaders, then Two Entire Churches in Utter Conflict
Recently, we had the joy of spending time with some experienced church leaders. We respected so many things about these men, their love for the Lord and His Word; their commitment to their families, churches, and communities; their love for the lost; their intelligence and humility (always an attractive combination). But, like all of us at times, they were facing conflicts in their churches.
These conflicts were complex and included substantive matters that needed addressing. But their substantive matters had degraded the personal relationships among these men. And their fellow leaders. And their wives. And their church members.
So what did we do? We turned to the Lord anew. Worshiped Him. Studied His Word. Prayed. And we did the hard work of much discussion/debate (just like Acts 15 requires of us!). We remembered all of those “good listening skills” we had ever learned. We didn’t forget the temptations to a “stage mentality” associated with complex group dynamics. Basically, we walked through each of the four sections of Redeeming Church Conflicts: Perspective, Discernment, Leadership, and Biblical Response. Of course these “steps”did not guarantee a fully reconciled result, but in this case, God graciously granted one. Hearts were pierced and humbled in repentance. Men were eager to confess to one another and forgive one another.
As is always our goal as Christian mediators, soon we weren’t even needed because these men—who just a few days earlier were unable to even look at one another more or less converse civilly—remembered they were brothers, on the same side, fighting the same enemies (Satan, the world, the Old Man). And that they were not, in fact, each other’s enemies.
Yes, it was a joy. And a privilege. And a great reminder that God’s Word really does pierce the hardest of hearts—we know this from personal experience regarding our own oft’ stony hearts, and we had an opportunity to observe it again during this conflicted church intervention.
Not an Event–But an Unfolding Process of God’s Grace
In another conflicted church, we had the privilege of helping a large group of godly, mature Christian men who had sacrificed their personal relationships on the altar of a substantive decision that the church was needing to make.
Initially, the men were extremely concerned with getting “their” individual stories (and memories) “on the record.” (Not that there was a record. We were not acting as arbitrators. We neither received nor authenticated evidence. There were no court reporters. It was just us. A room filled with Christians, talking about what happened and what didn’t happen.)
As is usually the case in these situations, the memories and perspectives from the various men were radically at odds with each other. Initially, it seemed as though we would never get anywhere; there was an indomitable barrier between the conflicted parties labeled, “TRUTH.” (But really what it said was, “MY TRUTH.” My perspective. My evidence, memories, testimony. My my my. Me me me.) Yes, we could have gotten completely bogged down right there, but we didn’t.
Instead, we helped these men to see that while it is helpful and even necessary to try to understand a basic outline of what has brought them to this point, there is nothing to be gained by dying on the hill of a best memory contest.
Instead, we called them to do what God calls all of us to do:
“Be reconciled!” (Matthew 5:24).
Once they decided it didn’t really make any difference how vastly different their respective “takes” were on the facts, they got down to business repenting, confessing, forgiving, remembering God, and started thinking more about healing their sheep.
Their personal reconciliation led them to work hard to develop a reconciliation plan to take back to their fellow leaders, families (because if you don’t think the wives are involved when their husbands are embroiled in church conflict, then you probably have never actually intervened in a conflicted church), and their church members.
The bottom-line of their reconciliation plan? That redemption of conflict is not an event, but an unfolding process of God’s grace.
Amen to that!
That’s what we’ll be saying (over and over again) in our workshops this week in Denver.
Hope to see you there!
For the glory of the Lamb,
Dave & Tara