After the split
by Stephen Ridgeway
We know it happens. We see it happen. Yet nobody wants to talk about it. When it is over, people try to move on but acrimony often follows. Some liken it to bereavement, citing depression, anxiety attacks and guilt feelings as symptoms of its devastation. Minors too are stung by its impact. They feel like vulnerable victims of circumstance unable to understand why this has occurred. Years may roll on before the parties concerned talk together – if they ever do. When the break-up is over there is a gnawing emptiness filled with pain, unanswered questions, and a feeling of disorientation.
Perhaps you think this article is about divorce. It isn’t. This article is about one of evangelicalism’s least addressed yet frequently experienced realities – the church split.
In what follows I want to look at life after the separation. My emphasis is primarily pastoral and aimed at helping those currently ‘picking up the pieces’ after such an event.
So, the nightmare has come true. We hoped it wouldn’t, we prayed it wouldn’t, but in the mysterious providence of God it has – the fellowship has broken apart. Seats once occupied are now empty; the buzz of conversation that used to fill the building after the service has been reduced to a whisper. Where do we go from here?
People will be struggling with all kinds of frustrations and emotional stresses. Because of this, it is all too easy for further cracks to appear in the remaining fellowship. So we need to adopt a policy of only discussing recent matters with others when it is constructive to do so.
Later, however, once the dust has settled, a period of reflection will be needed. We must take time out to ask what lessons can be learned from the tragedy. This will reduce the risk of repeating in the future any mistakes that may have been made.
What might have been done to stop the problem escalating? Was there anything I did that made this rupture more likely? To ask these questions requires a great deal of humility as well as courage.
Out of this soul-searching may come the recognition that we have sinned. If this is the case then we must confess our transgressions before God (Psalm 32:5). Apologies may then need to be made to those hurt by our actions (Matthew 5:23-24. Perhaps a card, phone call, or visit will be appropriate. Although such approaches may be too late to salvage the situation completely, at least we have done our best to make future fellowship possible. We then have a clear conscience before the Lord – a necessary prerequisite for ‘moving on’ (1 John 1:9).
Facing the present
But what about addressing the present? In any time of difficulty one of the biggest temptations Christians face is that of self-absorption. We become so locked in to our own personal struggles that we fail to look anywhere else. With this in mind there are four directions in which we need to keep looking.
Firstly, we need to look up to God in prayer. This is a crucial element in the recovery process. We ought to make it our aim to meet with other remaining members for intercession as often as we can. Nothing will strengthen us more than drawing together in the presence of our loving heavenly Father (Acts 2:42-43).
Such a discipline will keep us from growing hard and cynical over what has happened. It will also put our problems in perspective as we surrender them into the hands of a sovereign God (Philippians 4:6-7).
Secondly, hand in hand with this, we must look to Christ, who forgave his enemies and expects us to follow his example and be forgiving (Luke 23:34; Matthew 6:12). This is especially challenging in a disintegrating congregation, since such a situation often brings out the worst in people.
Forceful words can be exchanged in a moment. Double-speak and confrontational behaviour can be expressed by people from whom we would never have expected it. So we need to pray for special grace to remain a forgiving people in such challenging circumstances. Nothing will help us more here than keeping the forgiveness of God in Christ central to our thinking (Matthew 18:21-35).
The needs of others
Thirdly, we need to look around to consider the needs of others (Galatians 6:2). New converts, individuals with unbelieving partners, the elderly, any suffering from depression, and so on, will need special care.
So often such people get neglected by the remaining majority and as a result end up deeply damaged. Because of this those who are ‘strong’ should keep a special eye out for the ‘weak’.
Most of all, what these folk do not need is to be drawn into further gossip or accusation aimed at other parties. Only answer the questions they have – do not create questions in their minds that they don’t have. Take them back to Scripture so that they are thinking spiritually about this matter rather than bitterly (Romans 12:1-2).
Fourthly, we must look to our calling. Our traumatic experience may lure us into a survivalist mentality. Initially this will be instinctive and appropriate, but if it lasts too long it will narrow the church’s future usefulness.
As a church we are not just called to survive but to evangelise. Jesus has commissioned us to go into the world and preach the gospel and this is not something we can put on hold (Matthew 28:18-20).
If we are to experience future blessing we must keep this calling foremost. We need to remind ourselves that just as trade continued in London during the Blitz, so evangelism needs to continue when Satan does his worst.
Life changing choices
But what if we are still undecided as to whether to stay or go? There may be factors in the breach which make this decision difficult. In the end, what we choose to do will need to come after serious prayer and reflection.
Having said this, there are a few things worth keeping in mind. To begin with, avoid making a decision while mentally worn down or emotionally charged up. Often we can make life-changing choices in the heat of the moment that we later come to regret when our heads gain control of our hearts again.
Further to this, remember that difficulty, trouble and heartache alone are rarely valid reasons to leave a church. In fact they may be reasons to stay, as they can be evidence that God is at work – Satan never attacks something unless he feels threatened by it (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
Most importantly, beware of making decisions on the basis of misplaced loyalty. Even though we may choose to come out in support of a particular leader or member this must always be secondary to our loyalty to Jesus.
Too often people make decisions over doctrinal, ethical or fellowship issues based on whom they are closest to in church life. Of course this is understandable, especially if we feel that someone we love has been misrepresented or mistreated.
Yet our first loyalty is to Christ, his Word, and the witness of his church. Only then will any decision we make, in terms of offering help and support, be spiritually balanced and not just an emotional reaction.
The wider picture
Finally, in all our sadness, let us not lose sight of the wider picture – God has big plans for his people! Humanly speaking it may seem as though God has abandoned us altogether. Yet the spiritual reality is different. The church has been bought by the blood of Christ and is precious to him (1 Peter 1:18-19).
We can therefore be reassured that behind all our difficulties is the hand of our loving heavenly Father, working for the good of his glory and the prosperity of his children.
Sometimes the Lord allows troubles to arise in the life of a fellowship so as to address imperfections, deepen holiness and strengthen faith. For this reason the Scriptures exhort us to patience rather than despair (James 1:2-4).
The experience of the patriarch Joseph should be an encouragement to us. God used the sinful behaviour of his jealous siblings to bring about unimaginable blessing for him and the nations (Genesis 50:20). If the Lord could do it then, he can do it today!
So, while we should never treat a church split lightly, neither should we see it as a sign that God doesn’t care about us anymore. He is a faithful God whose love for his wayward people is indestructible.
No doubt we will look back from eternity and marvel at how God, in his sovereignty, used even the tragedy of a divided congregation to fulfil his good purposes on earth. What is more, we will celebrate this fact as members of a perfectly united church, because all divisions will be dissolved at the return of Christ (Revelation 21:1-4).