Have you ever seen a firestorm? The flames are shooting skyward to unbelievable heights. As the air heats and rushes upward, cool air rushes in at the lower level to fill the vacuum created. Now, you have winds blowing toward the fire and winds inside the inferno shooting upward.
Get out of its way.
The word “maelstrom” comes to mind here. It’s a Dutch word that literally means a “grinding stream.” (I keep wanting the “strom” to mean “storm,” but Webster says it’s “stream.”) Think of a whirlpool that is sucking everything into its vortex.
Think: church fight.
Ever been in one? If you have, you’ll never want to be in another. Once is enough forever.
There is only one who enjoys a knock-down drag-out among the people of God and he is the original fallen angel himself, the great dragon, the accuser of the brethren, Lucifer, the father of lies and the sire of everything unholy.
I have never personally been a warrior in a church fight. However, I know far more than I would like about them. As pastor I have a) observed neighboring churches waging war among themselves, b) dealt with the aftermath of fights in churches I pastored, and c) heard countless horror stories from the walking wounded who had come through the religious wars.
Before dealing with the scriptural instructions on what our response should be to these battles of the faithful, let me issue the one overwhelming principle which should guide all of us:
Walk away from it.
No issue is worth tearing up a church.
Even if truth is at stake–and it always is, if we are to believe the parties involved–and even if the eternal destinies of people hang in the balance, the way to resolve a conflict is not by tearing a church asunder.
A famous line from the Vietnam War era, uttered by those who wanted to stop that no-win conflict and pull our soldiers out, asked, “What if they gave a war and no one came?”
If no one will fight, there’s no battle.
It’s a great idea.
You will want to drop back and read I Peter 2:21-25 (we included it in the previous article). Now, ask yourself one question: “Can anyone looking at how Jesus endured the cross think for a moment that He wants us to take up arms against our brother or sister in the congregation?”
But, pastor, you don’t understand! We’re in the right here. The other side has done wrong. They’re unbiblical, ungodly, immature, headstrong, stiff-necked, and on top of that, they’re taunting us. We can’t let this go unaddressed.
You are a fool if you believe that.
All the right is on one side and all the offenses on the other. Give me a break. It’s not true of your marriage, not true in the Second World War, not true in our present struggle against radical Islamic terrorism, and not true in your church fight.
That is not to say–let me rush to make this clear or some will read no further!–that each side has as much claim to right and truth and justice as the other.
Rather, no one in a church fight ever thinks of himself or herself as the aggressor, but always the aggrieved.
So, in a church conflict–and that’s our subject here–do not buy the lie that your side has all truth and the others are a bunch of evil-doers who want only to run roughshod over the lovers of all that is good and holy.
If you forget for a moment that you are a sinner saved by grace and deserve to spend eternity in hell, you are a goner. You get pulled into the maelstrom and caught up in the firestorm that is consuming your church’s peace, destroying its unity and killing its missionary heart.
According to Scripture, here is what we should do….
1) Follow the example of Christ. (I Peter 2:21)
So, what did Jesus do when arrested? He went along. What did He do when put on trial? He kept silent. What did He do when nailed to the cross? He prayed for His tormentors. What did He do when they killed Him? The Father raised Him from the dead and gave Him the best vindication of all!
“But I’m not Jesus,” someone says.
Thank God you’re not. But, also thankfully, no one is asking you to be Him. You are being asked–commanded, actually–to obey Him.
2) If you suffer, let it be wrongfully. (I Peter 2:22)
“He committed no sin.” They had to manufacture charges and bribe witnesses to convict Him.
When a church fight breaks out, refuse to play. Do not join sides. There are bigger issues at stake here than who wins this particular battle. The larger issues are the glory of the Lord (which is going down the toilet at the moment), the mission of the church (the energy and resources for which are presently being sucked up by the fight), the unity of the congregation (which matters a lot more to Jesus than it does to you and me, I wager), and the welfare of “the little ones who believe in me” (a reference to Matthew 18:6, a warning conveniently ignored by church-battlers).
3) Do not get on their level. (I Peter 2:22b)
“Nor was any deceit found in His mouth.”
It’s tragically funny the ideas that will occur to a well-intentioned Christian watching his church come apart at the seams. “What if I wrote an anonymous letter to that guy and told him off.” “I’m so angry at him for what he has done, I’m going to slip over to his house one night and pour sand in his gas tank.”
Oh, great. The devil is going to love this.
Carry out your little nefarious plans and, instead of solving anything, you will escalate the hostility.
So, you’re not going to play by their underhanded rules. You are not going to be deceitful or mean-spirited.
4) Do not retaliate. (I Peter 2:23)
No ugly retorts, no cruel put-downs, no harsh cutting remarks that will put them in their place. Those are luxuries (of a sort) you are not allowed.
Absorb the hurt. Take your licks. Keep your mouth closed.
If you will, you will expose the other guy as the bully. If you retaliate, it looks for all the world like a fight of equals, both equally in the wrong, both of you the aggressors.
5) Commit yourself to the Lord. (I Peter 2:23b)
“…but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.”
But pastor, they’re in the wrong. They’re accusing me, they’re spreading lies. I can’t let those go or people will believe them.
Friend, no matter what you say, some will believe them. Nothing you say will convince your detractors you speak the truth. And nothing they say will convince your supporters otherwise.
This is the time to decide if you are a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ or not. If you are, commit yourself to Him and leave it there. It’s His battle, and His job to right the wrongs.
6) Look for God to bring good from it. (I Peter 2:24)
“…for by His stripes you were healed.” You will recognize this as a line from Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah (Isa. 53:5).
Jonathan pastored a church in New England for 23 years. During that time, he dealt with power struggles, salary controversies, and attacks on his leadership. On one occasion, when he confronted some boys in the church over their suggestive comments to the girls, the boys’ parents turned on him and formed an alliance against him.
When Jonathan announced that his policy was to visit in the homes of members only in emergencies, they accused him of not loving the sheep. Then, when Jonathan began to exert leadership to require members to be saved and live holy lives, that was the final straw. The church fired him.
At age 46, Jonathan found himself unemployed. Emotions in the community were so raw, the citizens even refused to allow him to enter the public park with his animals.
In all this, Jonathan did not sin. A friend noted, “He appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good.”
A full 10 years later, one of Jonathan’s severest critics admitted that he had acted out of pride, self-sufficiency, and vanity. The way the pastor had handled the attacks and mean-spiritedness eventually resulted in the congregation repenting of their sinful acts.
That pastor was Jonathan Edwards, called “unquestionably America’s greatest theologian.”
7) Keep yourself close to the Lord and wait. (I Peter 2:25)
“For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”
It’s His flock and not yours. It’s His church and not yours. If there is a battle to be fought for the flock, let the Shepherd handle it.
The next time some in your church want to give a war, do not participate.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
A church I know is being threatened by the insistence of a few leaders that the pastor leave, in spite of the support he enjoys from the congregation. When a deacon told those few how Scripture says such issues are to be handled, he was surprised by their response. As he later told the pastor, “They said they don’t care what the Bible says, they just want the preacher gone.”
When one of the contrarians took the pulpit at the end of a worship service to read his charges against the pastor, people got up and walked out. Others stood and walked to the altar and began to pray.
That’s how to end a church fight before it starts. Refuse to play.
We leave this issue here knowing full well that some will read it as though we have suggested those church members should have turned everything over to the pastor’s critics and let them have their way. I’m saying nothing of the kind. The faithful should keep doing their jobs, stay in their assigned positions, support their minister, and refuse to tear up a great church in order to get their way.
Now, do one more thing if you are the pastor or a teacher in the church: Teach this passage and these principles to your people again and again.
Teach them once and they will forget them. Teach them one time and it may be years before a conflict that threatens the church breaks out. You have to constantly drill them into the minds and hearts of the Lord’s people in order for them to automatically and naturally carry them out in a time of crisis.
The principles are found all through the New Testament, so you’ll not have to constantly harp on I Peter 2:21-25. For starters, Matthew 10:16ff and Romans 12 come to mind.
Joe, your words about Jonathan Edwards caught my attention. I appreciate the “nuggets” that you glean from history that better help us understand the character of one like Jonathan Edwards. My only real view of him from history is the inage of him leaning over the pulpit reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and people falling under the power of those words; not the dynamic speaking voice or the charisma of the man, but the “power” of those very words.
True revival brings an “awakening” something sorely needed in our churches, our cities, states and our country. All of your points, ultimately point to the need for that awakening.
A true and timely article.
You are hurting more than you think. One thing that many do not realize is that during a church fight, you are not only hurting those involved but the innocent ones as well. Let me explain, When I was between the ages of 5 and 9 our church was in a huge church fight. They would say that the children were innocent. However, we had to endure all of the bitterness. Still today, at the age of 43, it has a profound effect on me. Sometimes hindering the effectiveness of my leading.
I was teaching Sunday School in a church when a war erupted. I had a difficult time keeping my class from turning into a complaint session about the pastor. Some encouraged me to lead a rebellion. Honestly, I considered it. God was gracious and showed me what happened to Miriam that she rebelled against Moses, and I will always be grateful that he spared me from doing something so foolish. God also taught me something else. Refraining from participating in a church fight does little good unless we call on God to judge the evil doers. David did more than stay out of King Saul’s way. He called on God to judge between you and me. Hence the wisdom of refusing to fight. When we call on God to judge us, he judges everyone. Therefore, if we act like those who do evil, we will fall under the same condemnation.
My deacon husband and I were at the hospital visiting a church family in ICU. Now we were unacquainted with this family b/c of the size of our church. It was during a very inconvenient time in our life, but we went. The family members could only complain about the fact that the pastor had not come. They raved about the previous pastor. It made our visit appear unappreciated. It was very tempting to ask them who wrote the rules on compassion.Instead we gave them materials that we thought would be comforting, we prayed with them and continued to check on them. The wife, who had dropped out of church, said that she might consider returning….The rest of the story has yet to be written.
HURT PEOPLE: HURT PEOPLE.
JESUS PEOPLE: ABSORB THE HURT TO LOVE THOSE WHO HURT THEM.🙏