Nearly every week we get calls in the office of convention relations from people disgruntled by something that is happening in their church. It may be they're mad at their pastor, upset with the deacons, frustrated with a group they perceive as dominating the membership, or just alarmed at a particular decision approved at last week's business meeting.
No matter what the problem, eventually the callers get around to wanting the Southern Baptist Convention to do something about it. They want someone with authority to step in and intervene on their behalf. My response is always the same: That authority lies only in the local church. Baptist churches are autonomous, and our denominational polity precludes any outside intervention into the matters of the local body.
"You have every right," I tell them, "as a member of the church, to discuss these matters and bring your concerns before the body in a Christian spirit." Ironically, many of the callers find this disappointing. They want someone else to take care of the matter for them; they want someone else to lead the way, particularly if it means an open conflict.
But I like the Baptist way for the very fact that it does lead to conflict, and conflict, engaged within biblical parameters (see Eph. 4), leads to an intimacy most modern men rarely encounter. The biblical model for conflict forces us to confront those around us, and to confront ourselves, speaking the truth in love so we can all grow up in Christ.
The design of the Baptist business meeting, with our congregational rule, assumes that every member arrives walking in the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5. It assumes everyone arrives prayed up and informed. It assumes every member arrives concerned more about Kingdom needs than their own.
Idealistic? Maybe so — you and I could fill a month of Sundays giving examples of how such meetings have been abused, and how the polity of a local church has been manipulated, frustrated and undermined by individuals and groups. But that doesn't make the system wrong, and it doesn't guarantee that any other system will be devoid of human-fueled flaws.
And the real point is this: God never meant for us to rely on any system. He wants us to rely on Him, and congregational rule guides believers into a deeper reliance upon God and His spirit working through each Christian.
It's ironic that when I suggest to those calling with concerns that they take the matter to God in prayer, their reaction is often one of disappointed resignation. If all else fails, take it to the Father. "I guess I could pray," the caller says, "but I sure wish there was more I could do." Where is our faith in a God Who can work through, and perhaps is even in, a church conflict?
There is one other suggestion I always make to concerned callers. I refer them to Matthew 18, and walk them through the process of confronting a sinning brother. The format is applicable to conflicts within the church: First, approach those on the "other side" individually, and if the conflict is not resolved, go back with other witnesses. Finally, if the conflict persists, bring it before the entire church body.
Most people balk at doing that. They think it will cause further division within the body, but I think the Bible teaches quite clearly that stuffing conflict or avoiding it or ignoring it only leads to greater problems. Bringing it into the light brings it under the blood, denying Satan a foothold that might otherwise fester.
And chances are, it won't come to that. By sitting down with the "opposition," face-to-face, most conflicts can be resolved. You begin to understand the other's perspective, and they yours. And even if the conflict continues, you can see God's hand working through it as you rely on Him, and not someone else or some system to carry you in the midst of the storm.