“It was like being in Hell with instructions!”

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,
-Dave Edling

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Why is the rampant loss of hope a reality in most church conflicts?

One observation Tara and I make in Redeeming Church Conflicts concerns the loss of hope among believers who struggle with conflicts in the church. We spend a significant number of words on that sad dynamic and how to respond biblically. Scripture, of course, repeatedly and clearly points to God and his Word as the only true source of our hope. For example:

  • Psalm 42:5     put your hope in God…
  • Psalm 62:5     my hope comes from him…
  • Psalm 119:74  for I have put my hope in your word…
  • Psalm 146:5   whose hope is in the Lord his God…
  • Romans 15:13 may the God of hope fill you…
  • 1 Corinthians 15:19  for this life we hope in Christ…
  • Hebrews 6:19   we have this hope as an anchor…
  • Hebrews 11:1    faith is being sure of what we hope for…

We all know that hope is one of the most enduring aspects of the Christian faith: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

With such clarity from Scripture, doesn’t it seem a bit incongruent that hope frequently becomes one of the first victims of church conflict? We profess hope as a core fixture of our faith along with faith and love but when conflicts poison the culture of the church hope seems the most vulnerable.

Why? Why the rampant loss of hope as a reality of church conflict?

I think it is because we frequently and too easily dilute biblical hope with worldly reality. That confusion is often fueled by prayers first (and ardently) for God to change “that other person” rather than for God to change me. We know God is perfectly trustworthy but that people aren’t. We know that God is perfectly faithful but that people aren’t. We know that God is perfectly consistent but that people aren’t.

So, when the people we have looked to to define our faith, shape our lives as believers, and form our experience of Christianity fail us, at that time of failure, frequently our hope in God withers too.

Loss and failure based on what we have experienced in God’s church at the hands of other believers is often confused with a failure of God. And in that confusion we then treat others not out of love but out of failed hope. Because we lose hope in the people of the church we can lose our hope in God. Further, we subsequently don’t allow the true source of hope to govern our relationships with others. Rather, we allow our shifting and misplaced hope in people, who like us, are ultimately not perfectly trustworthy, faithful, or consistent, drive our conduct and we fall further and further away from our real source of hope.

The object of our hope should never change even when we find ourselves shaken by conflict. If the object and ultimate source of our hope does not waiver should we not be able to maintain hope whatever comes? We are called to be free (and wise) in the Spirit to distinguish worldly disappointment so that it doesn’t lead to disappointment with God. Being grounded in God as our only source for hope means we can then choose to minister, serve, and have compassion and care for those who would even be the potential cause of our hope-confusion.

Rightly placed hope always remembers: And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us (Roman 5:5).

May you find joy in hope even in the midst of church conflict.

-Dave Edling

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In Your Anger Do Not Sin

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:

  1. Righteous anger reacts against actual sin: “Righteous anger does not result from merely being inconvenienced or from violations of personal preference or human tradition.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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,
Dave Edling

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Church Conflicts Often Reveal Deep, Complex Pain

If you’ve read Redeeming Church Conflicts (and if, like me, you’re the kind of person who reads dedications and footnotes), then you already know that my primary dedication for this book was to my friend and elder–a man whom I greatly respect and love; but also a man with whom I had a terrible church conflict. This conflict was many years ago, but I still regularly rejoice that the Lord and His people helped my elder and me to fight hard for unity and love.

You see, at the time of the conflict, we were (relatively) mature Christians who knew the Bible and took it seriously. We both knew (and taught!) all of the Peacemaker Ministries foundational biblical peacemaking principles and we had actually helped many other people to resolve their conflicts in a Christ-centered, biblically-faithful way. Still. When our hearts were offended and hurt; when our priorities and goals changed and then our relationship broke down, it actually took months of mediations and conflict coaching sessions for us to work through our conflict and truly be reconciled.

It would have been so much easier to just put on the peace-faking lie of “unity” and part ways. Easier, but not better.

For God had a plan to redeem our suffering, grow us up in Christ, and further the true, abiding “unity of the saints through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This plan was gut-wrenchingly painful. This plan required our fellow church members and leaders to already be trained, equipped, and ready to help us. This plan was a death. But ultimately, just like Dave said in our video earlier today, “through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures” (Romans 15:4) it brought hope. Life. Sanctification—of us as individuals and of our church family, our corporate, covenant family.

People often ask me:

Why in the world did it take so long for you to be reconciled?”

There are so many reasons—we could spend pages of blog posts unpacking the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of Man, the idols of our hearts, life in a fallen world, etc. (and Dave and I plan to do just that in the coming years!). But I want to mention just one aspect of our conflict that might be of particular help to those of you who are “walking through the excruciatingly painful fire of conflict in the church” (the words I used in my dedication to describe this conflict) …

I truly believe that one of the reasons our conflict took so much time and effort to truly resolve is because our conflict was merely a presenting issue that revealed other aspects of suffering and pain in our lives—areas of brokenness and woundedness that God was calling us to face, feel/experience, grieve, and grow in our confidence in Christ.

Church conflicts often reveal deep, complex pain. In Peacemaking Women, Judy Dabler and I describe it like this:

“Another reason our suffering can devastate us is that we often experience suffering on two different levels. The pain from the current situation may “tap into” our past experiences … When our experience of pain seems disproportional to the actual situation we are in, we need to look deep into our own hearts to see if a life-forming trauma might be surfacing in the current conflict. Sometimes we may even need help to do so because our pain may cloud our vision and make it difficult to see clearly. Grief and despair, while rooted in past hurts, can be reflected powerfully in current circumstances and present suffering.

Of course, even as we seek to gain wisdom and insight about our complex pain, our suffering never gives us an excuse to sin. God calls us to honor him regardless of our past or present circumstances. As David Powlison reminds us, “Knowledge of a person’s history may be important for many reasons (compassion, understanding, knowledge of characteristic temptations), but it never determines the heart’s inclinations.”

Oh! The lessons we both would have missed out on; the growth in grace and faith that would never have happened—if we had just been allowed to abandon our relationship and walk away. But our church would never allow it. Our pastors and lay leaders and members loved God and loved us far too much to allow us to sin in that way. No. It was a great sacrifice to them—of time and talent and treasures; but they persevered in calling us to (and requiring of us) unity. One of my elders and his wife (the other people I dedicated the book to) actually went so far as to tell us during the most heated part of the conflict:

“Tara and Fred? We are praying against any job opening coming for Fred; against your house selling; against anything that would enable you to leave before you and this elder are truly reconciled.”

That is friendship! That is shepherd leadership! And that is redeeming church conflicts.

I am so, so grateful.

Praying for each one of you—that your confidence in the perfect work of Christ would grow with every day of your life!

Your sister in Christ,
Tara Barthel

PS
My coauthor, Dave Edling, was also one of my most faithful friends and godly counselors during this dark season of my life. Who would have ever thought that one day we would write a book about such things! At the time? Never, never me. But God always surprises us. And He always works everything together for His glory and our good (Romans 8:28-29). May God bless you and keep you in Him! — tkb

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Making the Decision to Leave Your Church

A few weeks ago in response to my blog about church membership, member vows, and what might be a valid reason to leave one’s church, a reader wrote that she didn’t think I answered the question. She also expressed her opinion that when church leaders become abusive that a very good reason to leave one’s church exists. So, I thought I should write a bit more about what I believe about a church member feeling that circumstances may establish grounds for leaving one’s church.

First, I believe that this reader is correct in saying I didn’t answer the question, at least not in the way she thought I should. My purpose in writing here at Redeeming Church Conflicts.com is not to provide specific answers to specific questions that a person would then use to make a final personal decision, but rather to help questioners think through for themselves what should be the way of asking the best questions, at the right time, in the best forum, for the right reasons, and with the application of biblical truth driving every aspect of that process. (Please see Tara’s and my “About Us” page and our “Disclaimer” statement on this site.) Not only that, please remember Proverbs 18:17: The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. In this format we cannot be expected to have all of the information from both sides relevant to any story or comment.

In this instance, our reader’s comment concerning her belief that a valid reason for leaving a church was when church leaders become abusive indicates that she is seeking an answer to confirm or deny that that reason is valid and one based on, in her opinion, biblical principle. She cited Ezekiel 34 as an example of unfaithful shepherds and how that provided her argument that that reason was a valid one for leaving one’s church. But, in my opinion, there are so many other better questions that should, and must, be explored first before closing the door on this important issue.

Let me rephrase what seems to be our reader’s core question: “Is it biblically valid to break one’s church membership vows and leave the church when church leaders become abusive?” This question can be further subdivided into: (1) When is it biblically valid to break one’s church membership vows and leave the church?” and (2) When can a church leader’s behavior be labeled “abusive?” The second question may be one way to a potential reason or answer to the first so I am not going to go into the many potential forms of pastoral abuse here since the list would be very long (such as breach of a church member’s confidentiality, sexual abuse, counseling abuse, greed, failure to shepherd, intentional lying to protect self, not preaching the Gospel, etc., etc.). Those may all be valid reasons to label a leader’s behavior as “abusive,” but they may not all be valid reasons to leave one’s church. So, the first of our subdivided question becomes the key one on which to focus.

Breaking a vow, any vow, is a very serious matter. Breaking a vow of church membership is one of the most serious because it was one made as a promise to both God and God’s under-shepherds, and the people who inhabit the pews with you. Vows should never be taken lightly. My first question back to our reader may be something like: “When you became a member of your church did you know everything you possibly could about how the leaders of the church would undertake their shepherding responsibilities toward you and others?” I believe too many people make decisions too quickly about joining a particular church before knowing everything they can about it. That is why “potential new member’s classes” are so important. But, it also takes some time to see if what was taught in such a class is what is actually practiced in the church. A rash vow can be a dangerous thing (see the account of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges, chapter 11).

Because a church membership vow is so important it is also wise to think through, “what is the nature of this vow really?” That is, is it a unilateral vow where all responsibility for fulfillment is solely mine or is this a reciprocal situation where the church is also making a vow to me? If the church breaks its vow to me am I free to break my vow in return? What about my responsibility to quietly use my position as a member to seek to correct the breach? If a church leader is not living up to his responsibility should I not seek to help this leader see that and change? This is an aspect of accountability that many church members don’t embrace when things aren’t going as they should in the church based on a biblical standard and from a biblical perspective. What about those who have spiritual authority over church leaders? Can they hear your concerns and appropriately be brought into the situation so that errant leaders can have the benefit of correction? If you have joined a church where there is no meaningful accountability for leader behavior and practice you have likely not fulfilled your responsibility to take a vow wisely. Every church leader needs the benefit of being under meaningful accountability. That is a question of “polity” (church governance structure) and should be one of the most important subjects taught in a potential new member’s class and completely understood before a church membership vow is taken.

The question we are focusing on is a very difficult one to find a completely satisfactory answer to because God took his own vow one day long past that stands as a model for us of the severity of vow-taking. You can read about it in Genesis, chapter 15. Because God can make a binding promise on nothing higher than himself this vow is called a self-maledictory oath (it includes the punishment as part of the vow if broken). The best discussion of this vow that demonstrates how seriously God took his own vow is in Tim Lane’s and Paul Tripp’s book How People Change at pages 68 and 69:

What is going on in this strange encounter? Abram is struggling to believe God, so God helps him. He tells him to cut some animals in half. That night, a smoking firepot and a blazing torch pass between the animal halves. God was saying, “If I do not keep my promise to you, may what happened to these animals happen to me!” This is called a self-maledictory oath. God is saying, “If I don’t keep my end of the bargain, may I be ripped asunder!” Over two thousand years later, God the Son hung on a cross, crying out, “My God! My God! Why have we been ripped asunder?” God allowed what should have happened to us to happen to Jesus. We were the ones who failed, yet the triune God was torn asunder so that we might be united to him and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The perfect love, unity, and joy that existed between the Father, Son, and Spirit were demolished, for a time, for our sake.

This is the ground on which we build all relationships. Every time you are tempted to shun another believer [be that a church leader, pastor, or fellow member], remember that the Father, Son, and Spirit were torn asunder so that you might be united. When you sin or are sinned against, you are to move toward your sibling in Christ aware that Father, Son, and Spirit were torn asunder so that you might be reconciled! If we approached relationships in the body of Christ with that in view, it would transform our friendships. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that to the degree you do this, you will be “built up,” “become mature,” “ attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” and “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

I hope that all of our readers have a better understanding of vow-taking and vow-keeping in the church when they reflect on Genesis 15 and the words above.  To the reader who asked the direction question weeks ago: Yes, leaders may be abusive and you should leave if that is true and you have no avenue open to you for holding them accountable for their abuse, but first take responsibility for the fact the fault may have been yours for taking the church membership vow in the first place. Did you agree to be in submission to these leaders without knowledge? Did you know if they were men under meaningful ecclesiastical accountability? If not, acknowledge your sin for taking a vow perhaps a bit too rashly. Humbly acknowledge that the fault was yours and try your best not to fall into the same situation the next time you join a church.

-Dave Edling

Posted in Abusive churches, Conflicts involving church leaders, When is it valid to leave a church? | Leave a comment

Child Abuse in the Church: Justice Can Be Grace

Since I linked over to it in today’s post on my personal blog, I thought I would share this post with you too:

Child Abuse in the Church: Justice Can Be Grace

Not only is this an extraordinarily important topic because of our duty to protect our children to the best of our abilities, it is also one of the “most prone to destroy/divide a church” topics.

Oh. And if you think that your church doesn’t have men and boys (and increasingly women) habitually viewing p*rn and reading er*tica? If you think “that will never happen in MY church!” If you don’t think that abusers intentionally prey on churches? Then truly: it is particularly important that you read this article.

For the glory of God and the service of His Bride—

Your sister in Christ,
Tara B.

Posted in Abusive churches, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Lawsuits and Church Conflict | Leave a comment

Res Ipsa Loquitur: Destructive Church Conflict Reveals Worldliness

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)

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Disappointment in the church | 1 Comment

Redeeming Church Conflict is Not an Event—But an Unfolding Process of God’s Grace

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

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, HOPE in the midst of conflict | Leave a comment

A Tapestry with Different Threads Thoughtfully Woven Together

How grateful we are for this positive review by Mark G. Johnston, board member of Banner of Truth and pastor at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA):

“Conflict is a given in the life of the church. Just as the devil had a vested interest in disrupting and dividing the order and the beauty of God’s original creation when he stirred unrest in Eden, so he continues to do so in God’s new creation in the shared life of his people in the church.

That does not mean that conflict should be condoned in the life of the church, or that pastors and their people should be complacent to it. Quite the opposite, when we step back and see the dynamics of conflict in broader perspective, it not only gives us our bearings in how to handle such situations, but it provides the ability to prevent church conflicts turning into church crises. This book sets out to provide that perspective.

Its authors write, not from the detachment of armchair theorists, but as those who have experienced the pain of conflict in their own church family. More than that, as they faced the challenge of working through that conflict with the different factions caught up in it, they went on to discover the joy of conflict resolution. That background injects its own unique flavor not only into what they write, but their entire approach in writing. They have carefully and deliberately crafted their book in a way that draws their readers in and persuasively engages their hearts and minds as they work these issues through.

The book’s format is quite distinctive: almost like a tapestry with different threads thoughtfully woven together from beginning to end. One of the main threads is the retelling of the story of the church division that made such an impact on its authors. The church in question is discreetly given a fictitious name, but the contours of the disagreement it faced, the way they approached it and their use of Scripture to guide them to a more than happy conclusion are clearly mapped out. The authors break the story up into six segments through the book as a whole. Turning this narrative into a motif in this way provides a great incentive to read through to the next installment.

The key thought, however, around which the entire book is structured and which ties in to the conflict situation out of which it was originally born, is the role of Acts 15 as a biblical model for dealing with church divisions. Chapter by chapter we are taken almost verse by verse through this passage, seeing it not merely as a paradigm for how a potentially disastrous dispute was handled by the early church; but also how it provides us with a very real theology of conflict management. Many of these chapters are rounded off with an ‘Apply this to your Church Conflict’ section.

There are other little recurring features in the way the authors develop this model of dealing with difficulties. One of them is the many ‘Mini Case Studies’ that are included. These reality sound bites are engaging and provide a vivid glimpse of how the principles articulated in the book have been tried and tested as they are worked out in practice.

The kind of issues addressed in the pages of this book are all too common and their fallout all too painful both for churches and for the people who belong to them. All too often conflict wins in church life because those embroiled in it have not stepped back to see it from a more sane and balanced point of view. This book provides such a viewpoint and is the kind of book that should be read before the clouds of conflict start to gather. But, even if that point has been passed, here is a book that is well worth reaching for in the storm!”

Posted in Reviews of "Redeeming Church Conflicts" | Leave a comment

When Should a Pastor Leave His Church?

I was recently asked “When should a pastor leave his church?” What the person was really asking for was a set of principled guidelines she could use to convince others, and her pastor, that it was time for a pastoral change. I refused to answer. I didn’t even resort to my usual lawyer-like answer: “Well, it depends.”

Honestly, I was quite bothered by this question and by this sister’s desire for a set of guidelines that will apply to every situation. In Redeeming Church Conflicts, while Tara and I look to the text of Acts 15 for broad principles that are supported by many other Scriptures, we are very careful to say (over and over again) that this is not a formula. As a general rule, formulaic approaches to almost anything having to do with people are unwise. This is true because every person is different and, therefore, every situation is unique because of those vast human variations that make life so rich … and, at times, so frustrating.  A question like the one posed to me above is like asking “When is the best time for a person to die?” Answer: “Well, it depends. Can they no longer breathe? Can their heart no longer circulate blood? Can they no longer absorb any life sustaining nutrients? OK, it’s probably a good time to die.” But I say that from the standpoint of a layperson. I am sure those educated in the medical arts would reply quite differently because they know that there are thousands of layers of complexity to each general anatomical area that I just named.

And so it is with relationships. There are thousands of layers of complexity to human relationships (and tens of thousands when you are talking about all of the overlapping relationships in a conflicted church). Questions like the one posed at the beginning of this article deny or ignore these complexities because they just want the shortcut. The easy way out. The time-saving, efficient “answer”, rather than the hard work of faith expressing itself in love in the mess of human relationships.

In the church, there are no shortcuts; no “easy ways out.” As a body of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) hewn together into a unique spiritual house of eternal and imperishable truth precious to God, no easy out is—nor should be—available. Rather than asking for formulas we should ask for wisdom. For it is wisdom that will allow us to discern God’s will when it comes to making the difficult decisions we frequently must face in the church.

If you have read Redeeming Church Conflicts you know we say quite a lot about “asking best, not just right, questions.” The best questions are those that steer clear of what could be offered as a formulaic answer. In the situation I described above, I should have taken the time to help her reformulate her question into difficult, but applicable, “best questions”:

  • What would it mean for the church to dispose of its pastor as if he were some mere “hired-hand” being let go from any old job?
  • What do you want to communicate to your current and future pastors, and to your congregation, about the unique nature of a “pastoral call” to preach, teach, and model holiness?
  • What impression do you want to leave in the minds of your people (people who are using their Spirit-bestowed gifts within your church) regarding whether they, too, may one day be considered as merely expendable?
  • If your pastor, too, is one of the “living stones” built into the structure of what God has been building, how do you cut him out without affecting the entire house?

Even taking all of these important questions into account, there are, of course, times when a church body should recognize that the spiritual gifts of any one man may not be suited to the challenges and opportunities being presented by the unique needs of a particular congregation. But even in this situation, the question should never be: “When should the pastor leave his church?” Instead, it should be:

“How can we, together, glorify God by helping our brother fulfill his call by directing the use of his spiritual gifts where he is becoming all that God would have him be in the church?”

That means wisely understanding what those gifts are and affirming them so that what transpires is not a loss but a gain. The pastor and every church member should be able to say: “Look what God has done through his servant.  Here is a brother, a living stone, now fitted to the structure in such a way that we all are stronger. God is indeed building his church, ‘a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’” (1 Peter 2:5)

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 1 Peter 2:9-12

We are the church! Let’s start acting like it. No more quests for the shallow short-cuts. No more throwing people away. No more cheap grace that seeks only the easy way out. We are each “called” and that means taking our place in the “wall” as a living stone…and ensuring our adjacent “stones” are not being overlooked, not being dismissed, because they, too, are an important part of what God is building.

For the glory of the Cornerstone,
– Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Change in the Church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor | Leave a comment