I had phoned a gifted young pastor for whom I had been a mentor and casually asked, "How's it going?" I was shocked by his reply: "You know, I'm not at the church anymore!" Everything changed. With one sentence my role had changed from affirming cheerleader to comforting friend.
I had told his church when they were considering his call that he was a gifted evangelistic pastor and he would be suitable only if they had growth potential they desired to fulfill. They assured me that growth was their priority.
My friend had been there only three and a half years. The church had great growth, baptizing over two hundred new converts and increasing from less than one hundred to over three hundred in weekly attendance. All of that came to a screeching halt when cries of "We want our little church back!" were answered.
Now they have their little church back, along with a large new building and heavy debt. In the aftermath were left a broken-hearted pastor with a hurting family and a confused congregation, many of whom dropped by the wayside. Perhaps the most far-reaching effect was on the community, which was left to question the integrity of churches and Christian leaders.
An All-Too-Common Tragedy
Church conflict has always existed. The apostles did not always agree. Peter and Paul had their disagreement (Galatians. 2:11ff.), and two women at Philippi had their spats (Philippians 4:2). In forty years of ministry in six churches, I have seen my share of church conflict. Some differences – both reasonable and unreasonable – existed in every church, though none ended in division or dismissal.
Termination seems on the rise, and older colleagues believe that conflict is more prevalent than ever. According to the latest LifeWay research, over thirteen hundred ministers were terminated in 2005. In order to preserve our fellowship and faithful witness, we must learn to disagree without hostility – to fight fair.
The Bible gives us the rules for fighting fair when people of faith disagree. Patient forbearance and forgiveness really work with people of character. Grace and wisdom are the spiritual dynamics when godly intentions and good faith actions are in play. Since some level of conflict is a direct result of our fallen human nature, it is essential that it be managed effectively. God's truth illuminated and energized by His Spirit provides the essential management tools.
Understand Biblical Roles
It is not fair for role expectations to vary from those of Holy Scripture, but the rhetoric that accompanies some church conflict indicates a serious knowledge deficit of these responsibilities. The New Testament lays these out with clarity.
The role of the pastor (or elder) has distinct responsibilities attached. Even a casual survey of relevant New Testament teaching is helpful. The basic concepts are found in six passages: 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and 5:17-19; 2 Timothy 4:1-3; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:7, 17; and 1 Peter 5:1-3. Scripture says the pastor (or elder) is to lead, teach, and govern (or manage) the church as Christ's under-shepherd. "Pastor" is a synonym for "shepherd" in our English Bible, and "bishop" means "overseer." Most Southern Baptists have held that pastor, elder, and bishop are simply varying names for the same person while "pastor" is the more commonly used term. (See A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, vol. 3, pp. 352-3, vol. 4, p. 574.)
Biblical truth refutes the corporate model of church leadership that is commonly accepted in our churches and is the source of much conflict. This model elevates some as bosses and owners with the pastor reduced to an employee. In contrast, Scripture admonishes to obey and submit to those leaders who "keep watch over your souls" and who are accountable to God for that ministry (Hebrews 13:17). The pastor is to lead the flock without dictatorial edicts but by example in doing God's will (1 Peter 5:1-4).
"Deacon" transliterates the word diakanos, which means servant. Deacons lead by serving, offering a model of discipleship to the body. They compose neither a board of directors nor a watchdog group to keep the pastor in check. As servants and helpers, deacons are not to exercise pastoral oversight.
Any distortion of the unique roles of pastors and deacons creates the root of conflict. The fruit of this is dissipation of Kingdom work, division within the body, and the destruction of the church's witness and fellowship.
Judge Only Your Own Motives
This principle deals with a fundamental of all human conflict: why we do what we do. Jesus exposed the heart of this issue in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-6). The source of hypocrisy is the heart (motive and attitude). Verse 6 affirms the necessity of value judgment since one must discern the value of pearls and the destructiveness of pigs. He does not condemn moral judgments, but rather, our motives in condemning others. What we criticize in others may exist abundantly in ourselves (vv. 1-2). Speculation about another's motives is wrong! In this life we cannot know why another speaks or acts, and in the next life we will not care.
Accusation of an evil motive quickly stokes the sparks of disagreement into a raging fire of conflict. These types of judgments are seldom accurate, revealing more of the accuser's motives than those of the accused.
While serving a troubled church, I was accused by an elderly man. He said, "I know what you are doing – you are trying to stay here and build a kingdom!" He could not have been more wrong – I wanted to leave! I had given a resume to several churches and was waiting for God to open a door.
My accuser was one of a small group who were still bitter after a former pastor led the church to adopt "biblical servanthood" as the church's understanding of the work of a deacon. He had been unsuccessful in his attempts to overturn that practice and establish the deacons as a ruling body. This accuser may have known his heart, but he did not know mine.
Jesus said to judge yourself! Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye but don't notice the log in your own eye? (v. 3). We must be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to reveal our hearts and purify our motives. It is never easy to be open to that which we do not really want to hear or believe, but this level of honesty is essential for a fair fight.
Weigh Words Carefully
The tongue is a "world of unrighteousness," wrote James, that pollutes and destroys the total course of life (3:6). Distortions, half-truths, and plain lies are devastating in themselves; but the damage is multiplied when they are repeated.
Our family visited beautiful Yellowstone National Park a few years after the famous Yellowstone fire. Endless miles of scorched black stumps now unfolded before us where hundreds of thousands of acres of verdant forests had once stood.
Mountain winds had fanned a very small fire into a spreading monster with an almost endless appetite. This massive destruction is the word picture James 3:6 paints: critical and accusatory words are unpredictably flammatory and unparalleled in destructive power. It is not wrong to disagree, but God's people must fight fair and avoid the sins of the tongue.
The believer's speech is under the authority of the love principle of Ephesians 4, whereby we maintain "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (v. 3). We are to speak the truth in love (v. 15) and, in specific application, speak "only what is good for the building up" of another (v. 29). Where applied, this truth reduces the rhetoric of a business meeting and dissipates even the most entrenched gossip group. This practice alone could change the "cold hard truth" into heart-transforming truth.
All conflict is not easily resolved, but these Bible basics when prayerfully applied will give productive results. They will provide calm resolution of disagreement and promote patient forbearance where honest differences exist. Obviously, all of this presumes that the participants are Spirit-born people who desire the will of Christ Jesus above their own.
Sins related to pride, power, and possession may grieve and quench the Spirit and make unity difficult. Where evil abounds, however, a persevering faith must abide. Some conflicts exist when a few members see themselves as owners or rulers. Sadly, but realistically, their end may be that of the Ephesian church, where the light of Christ no longer shone and He threatened to remove their lampstand (Revelations 2:1-6). While these citadels of sin always hinder the usefulness of a church for Kingdom purposes, these Bible basics offer hope for resolution of conflict.