Pastoring with both eyes open (2)
Most conservative pastors spend hours every week studying the Word for sermons and Bible studies. They sincerely believe that the Scriptures are inerrant, infallible and necessary for salvation and godly living. But when it comes to the real problems of life and conflict resolution, they often leave the teachings of Scripture at the door.
In other words, they believe in the inspiration of the Word but not in its sufficiency. They believe in its principles but not in its authority. They believe in its helpfulness but not in its power.
When an issue arises between members in the body, the truths of Scripture are treated as suggestions rather than mandates. The fact that God has provided in his Word everything needed to correct such issues seems to skip the minds of even godly pastors and leaders.
Ideas based on psychology, common sense or the latest self-help manual are allowed to trump the clear and unchangeable teachings of God. The result is often a free-for-all of ‘he-said-she-said’ accusations, hurt feelings and division. All this is avoidable (unless there are serious doctrinal or moral issues at stake) by simply putting into play the principles the Lord has so graciously provided.
Using the Scriptures
Here are some simple teachings in the Word designed to avoid and resolve conflicts. Every church leader needs to be well versed in these truths:
1. Great obligations and privileges attach to the shepherds of God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28). Elders are to aspire to the office not be forced into it (1 Timothy 3:1). And they are to take the responsibilities of the office seriously (Hebrews 13:17).
2. Elders are to guide the people of God in unity (1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:1-2; 4:2-3). God’s redeemed people do not naturally gravitate toward unity. They tend to find ways to bicker, feel hurt and lash out at those who offend them. They need leaders who both teach and model the biblical approach to conflict.
3. Unity in the body is often broken by inappropriate words of gossip and slander. Proverbs 10:18 declares that only a fool spreads slander. Proverbs 16:28 and 17:9 point out that slander separates close friends (17:9). Yet Proverbs 18:17 shows that gossip loses most of its power when the other side of the story is sought and heard. Proverbs 20:19 commands us not to associate with gossips. These are wise and valuable truths that we must incorporate into the life of the church.
4. When gossip, slander, conflict or evil are found among believers, the Lord gives clear directions on how to deal with them. Matthew 18:15-17 tells us to start with private confrontation, followed by small-group rebuke and then full church discipline.
But always keep in mind that the goal of this process is repentance (Luke 17:3) leading to forgiveness and reconciliation (Luke 17:4). We should remember that we are a community of grace and thus a forgiving people. No one lives a perfect life, so when we fail one another we are to seek reconciliation on the basis of grace. Therefore we look for every opportunity to show kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32).
5. The Lord knows that Satan’s attacks are specially levelled at the leadership of the church. If Satan can bring down an elder, or plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds, he can cause great harm in the body. Therefore the congregation must be taught the special instructions God has provided regarding elders.
First Timothy 5:19 tells us not to receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. It is implied that these witnesses are willing to make public accusations, not orchestrate a whispering campaign. These simple instructions, if followed, would greatly reduce friction and enhance the ministries of the churches concerned. Yet many churches and leaders behave as if God never anticipated such problems and has nothing to offer by way of solution.
Defining the ministry
Enemies must not be allowed to define the ministry. I use the word ‘enemy’ loosely since I believe the vast majority of troublemakers in any church are what one author described as ‘well-intentioned dragons’.
They do not see themselves as difficult people, and may even think they are part of the solution not part of the problem. What makes them ‘enemies’ is not their intentions (which may be good) but their ignorance of – or refusal to submit to – God’s approach as described in the Word.
Abandoning biblical methodology, they pursue a course that is not sanctioned by God. As a result, they become enemies, not so much of the pastor but of God’s way. If these people are kept from controlling the church, but are not corrected biblically, they will remain irritants within the body.
They will gripe, complain and whisper in an attempt to win a few more to their cause. But worse, if they are allowed to have their way, they will define the local church ministry – and that in an unbiblical manner.
The problem is that most church leaders want to avoid conflict at all cost. They did not enter the leadership to fight people but to help them. But they don’t realise that doing battle is a key ingredient in helping people, and consequently look for ways to sidestep trouble.
Inexperienced leaders often say, ‘Maybe it will blow over’. But rather than blowing over, the problems become ingrained. Next comes the temptation to give in. Far too many churches are run by those who shout the loudest or threaten most disruption.
Of course, such people are controlled by their flesh rather than by the Spirit, and are the last people who should be controlling a church. The simple fact is, however, that someone will lead in any local assembly. It should be the pastor and the appointed leaders, but if they are unwilling to fulfil their biblical job-description someone else will step into the gap.
Pastors who are fulfilling their God-given role dare not run from the field of battle and hand the victory to the enemies.
Remembering who is Master
A pastor who works for the people rather than the Master is prey to the whims of all. While it is important to listen to people, and much of value can be gleaned, there is only one voice that must be obeyed – that of Christ, who is the head of the body.
It is not our task to redesign the church (as many think today) but to implement God’s blueprint as laid out in Ephesians 4:11-16. There we find that God has given to his church specially gifted men to equip the saints so that they might do the work of ministry – which in turn builds up the body of Christ. To abandon this biblical model for a seeker-sensitive or ’emergent’ one is to reject the voice of the Master.
If you asked fifty friends to evaluate your life as they see it, every one of them would be wrong to some degree. Only Christ knows who we are at the core of our being – only his evaluation is faultless and only what he thinks ultimately matters. Our task is to please Christ – not our congregation, not ourselves and certainly not the latest church-growth gurus (2 Corinthians 2:9).
Guarding the sheep from the wolves
While I appreciated much in the article I referred to last month by Steve Brown1, one thing grieved me. He said that he kept a resignation letter on file at all times and was willing to use it. While there is a time to resign a ministry, many pastors are too quick to pull the trigger.
Most leave the field of battle during the heat of conflict, only to move to another church where conflict will eventually rear its ugly head. It should never be forgotten that conflict is unavoidable; what matters is how we handle it.
To leave the sheep at the mercy of wolves in the midst of the battle simply does not speak well of the shepherd. Such a move may give temporary respite to the pastor but it will not normally do anything for the local church – except allow the wrong people to gain control and inflict more harm upon those the pastor should be protecting.
I have determined, by God’s grace, that I will never desert the sheep when they need me most. If I were to leave my present ministry, it would be during a time of relative peace and spiritual prosperity, not when the wolves are nipping at the feet of the sheep.
A little ‘mean streak’ as described above would go a long way toward creating more godly and biblical churches, and would enrich and encourage the heart of many a pastor in the process.
Gary E. Gilley
1. Steve Brown, Leadership, Vol. VIII #2, ‘Developing a Christian Mean Streak’, pp. 32-37.