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

One of the biggest mistakes churches make in conflict is failing to trust Scripture …

One of the biggest mistakes churches make in conflict is failing to trust Scripture. In the confusion, hurt, and fear associated with church conflict, even mature Christians sometimes doubt that God’s revealed range of solutions will be adequate to their situation. Deep down, the things they “believe” (really, claim to believe), they do not believe. Their practical theology does not line up with their confessional theology—how they respond to conflict reveals what they really believe about:

  • The sovereignty of God (even over this conflict)
  • The sufficiency of Scripture
  • The adequacy of Scripture for all matters of faith and life
  • The truth that the principles found on the pages of God’s Word will lead to relevant solutions to every problem the church and God’s people will encounter (even the mess of church conflict)

One of the most telling symptoms of such unbelief—and it is unbelief—is the rejection of God’s Word as the source of the principles (not necessarily the specifics) needed to answer all of the conflicts our church faces. Too many would rather solely accept the application of the principles of modern psychology or sociology to “fix” what is wrong in God’s unique body of his chosen eternal children. While God has created men and women in such an amazingly ordered fashion that even unbelievers have brought us insights and common grace wisdom through observation and scientific analysis, such observations must never trump God’s revelation in the Scriptures. This is particularly true regarding God’s unique assembly—the church.  Yes, we study man. But the interpretations we give to such observations must be placed within and understood from God’s perspective: the light of his special revelation (the Bible). That is what unbelievers, even brilliant secular psychologists and sociologists, are unable to do.

One of the clearest and most cogent statements of this principle is this:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Section 6)

Trusting Scripture in a church conflict may seem a very difficult thing to do. It is. It takes hard work to dig out the relevant principles, to discern the Spirit’s leading, and to reach decisions ordered by the light of nature (God’s general revelation) and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the word (the Scriptures; special revelation), but we can do it. In fact, we must do it because that is our calling.

May God guide us to the place where we utterly cry out for his wisdom…his revealed will that we find in both his creation (general revelation) and his Word (special revelation) and then see it all as his sovereign, all sufficient, and completely adequate work of leading us to peace.

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Church discipline | Leave a comment

How to Find the Perfect Church

“The church is divided and broken. It is filled with sinners and hypocrites. It is not perfect and, in this life, it will never be perfect, but it is nevertheless instituted by God. God has always entrusted his gospel, the ministry, and the sacraments to redeemed sinners, and he expects those who bear his name to be united to a particular congregation.” With those sentences, and a few others, Dr. R. Scott Clark begins his excellent article A Perfect Church? Not In This Life (Evangelium Vol. 4: Issue 2, MAR/APR 2006; a quarterly publication of Westminster Seminary California).

A Perfect Church! In this Life! That is what many desire … demand … expect … covet. A church where everyone always thinks only on “whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).” That would be ideal. Perfectly ideal. A church where everyone lives consistently with all of the implications of the Christian Gospel. A church where self-interest is always secondary to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). A church where there is no conflict!

How can a person find such a church? As the title of Professor Clark’s article implies: Die.

Only in eternity does such a congregation flourish (see Revelation, chapters 21 and 22). We know now, however, based on God’s promises, that one day those who faithfully serve and persevere in the imperfect church will finally find the perfect church they long for. Dr. Clark writes, “Since the fall, the institutional church has always contained believers and unbelievers. Our Lord himself compares the church to a field with both weeds and wheat. According to Christ, the program for this age is to ‘let both grow together until the harvest, and at that time I will tell the reapers,’ ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matthew 13:24-31; ESV). The church is composed of wheat and weeds. We live in the time of sowing. We need to adjust our view of the church to match that of Jesus.”

Conflict in your church? People living for self? Defensiveness and self-justification at every turn? Welcome to the church, the perfect church! It is perfect because it is Christ’s. It is perfect because it reflects the reality of our humanity (very imperfect!), and it is perfect because it matches what the Lord has ordained it to be for this age. You are probably already a member there!

Some abandon and flee their church because it is sinful, but, as Dr. Clark notes, “I suspect the real problem that some have with the church is not just its sinfulness, but more fundamentally, its humanity.” Yes, the church is human but not of human origin. It is the church of God and a divine institution. The hard part for me, and I think probably most of us, is not confusing my definition of “divine” with that of our Lord’s.

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Disappointment in the church, HOPE in the midst of conflict | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Lamb,
Dave Edling

Posted in Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Confrontation, Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts", Postmodern Relativism and Church Conflict | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

– Dave Edling

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