Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Handling disagreements in the church (Part 1)

One of the many blessings of having our children become adults is to be able to worship with them and their churches when we visit them in cities far from us. We have been able to experience something of life in the churches they have joined and, in some cases, have come to know their pastors.

Our daughter and her husband have been members of the same church since shortly after they were married in 2005. Because our son is in the Air Force, his wife and he have been part of several churches as they have moved from station to station the last 11 years.

Now, the churches they are members of – another move just took our son and his wife away from their church home – are facing challenges. Disagreements mark both churches, though both are biblically faithful, gospel-focused bodies. The existence of these churches does not appear in question, but they now face the tests brought by divisions among saints.

This news has reminded me how vital it is for a church’s leaders and members to handle disagreements properly. After all, this is about the name of Christ and the witness of His body on earth.

Covenant Community Church knows something of this experience. Our church has experienced some painful differences in the last year. A theological disagreement – one the elders and a majority of members did not believe should divide us – nonetheless resulted in some members removing themselves from the church.

As a pastor, I look back at the departure of members with regret, sometimes realizing I could have handled issues better than I did. There have been times I should have addressed more quickly what appeared to be growing dissatisfaction on the part of some members. In at least some cases, I don’t think there is anything the other elders and I could have done to prevent the separation. I also recognize some members could have handled their concerns better than they did.

How should church members handle disagreements within their fellowship, regardless of the nature of those disagreements? Here are some of several recommendations I plan to share in this post and a sequel:

1. Make certain your differences count. Too many divisions in churches are based on things that really shouldn’t matter. Church members battle over the cosmetic appearance of a building. They fight over what style of music should be used in corporate worship. Members decide their felt needs are not being met. They get their feelings hurt over real or perceived slights. Those issues call for biblically based, grace-filled solutions, not acrimony and division. They also call for servanthood. All members, including elders, must remind themselves their purpose is to serve, not to be served. We are all followers of Jesus, the King of kings who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). What are issues, when properly understood, that may call for division? Certainly, the gospel and essential biblical doctrine are two of those.

2. Think, listen, speak and act with humility. Though we are saints, we all retain a sin nature that infects all we do. None of us perceives God, His Word or His people perfectly. We should remind ourselves regularly of these limitations as we dwell on how we disagree with other Christians – or think we disagree with other Christians -- and as we begin the process of expressing those disagreements. Disputes and divisions in a spirit of pride can make a recipe for personal disaster – and possibly corporate disaster. The apostle Peter says it well: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (I Peter 5:5).