Tuesday, October 31, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 5

In this last post of the series, it seems appropriate to end where we began: with the importance of the pastor in preventing church splits.

The most natural thing in the world is for a congregation to appreciate and respect its main preaching pastor. It happens without much effort in many cases, as the pastor opens the Word of God to the people of God Sunday after Sunday. That act of teaching is an act of love. And the longer one does it with a congregation--the people and the pastor growing in intimate knowledge of one another--the more the affections grow.

On the whole, I think this is as God intends it. If you can look out onto a people hoping to hear the Word of God fed to them by you, and not grow in fatherly affection for them, something is terribly wrong. Something essential is missing in the heart of the preacher. For after all, preaching is not merely or primarily an intellectual exercise. It is primarily an exercise of the heart… the preacher pouring His into the Word of God, then pouring out into the people, and the people opening theirs to be filled with the glorious riches of God in the preaching moment. If love is missing, the heart is defective.

And so it’s also natural that the primary preacher accrues a certain kind of authority in the eyes of the congregation as well. Loving authority stemming from loving teaching and preaching seems to be the plan of God.

But the human heart is also an idol factory. Without Spirit-filled thinking, men and women may easily begin to “worship” the pastor. No one will use that word to describe their affections and allegiance, but their hearts and actions will be fairly close to “worship.” At the least, there is such a thing as being overly devoted or loyal to a pastor. The problem affected Corinth and it affects many churches today.

If we are to prevent church splits one thing we must do is make sure that the natural affections and authority that accrue to the teaching office is dispersed among the leadership of the church. We must find obvious, subtle, and effective ways to attach the allegiance of the people to the church and the leadership as a whole. Four things come to mind. I’m sure there are others and welcome the feedback.

One practical thing we can do is make sure that other gifted men in the leadership and the body have an opportunity to exercise their teaching gifts. We certainly should use such men in Sunday school and small group settings. But we should also provide them opportunity in the more public meetings of the church: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings (if you have them), and mid-week Bible study.

Men don’t have to be seasoned, professional preachers. They should be clear communicators or the meetings won’t be edifying. But taking a “risk” on a younger man or a man with little preaching experience is a perfectly fine thing to do. A couple of churches I know use the Sunday evening service in part with this purpose in mind, and they often find new teaching gifts in the body and are able to help hone those gifts.

As the congregation grows more accustomed to hearing more of their leaders love them through teaching, we help to inoculate the body against one chief cause of church splits: disproportionate attachment to one leader. And as a rule, the more charismatic a leader you are, the more important this sharing of teaching authority becomes.

If we’re the main preaching/teaching elder, the other way we can spread authority and esteem for the entire body and leadership is to make specific, edifying comments about other leaders in the body.

I don’t mean we need to flatter our leaders. Our words should be true and proportionate to the situation or quality we’re commenting on. And they should be specific enough in detail to model for the congregation how to give godly encouragement and why they should be thankful for their leadership.

And our comments to the wider church should always underscore, not undermine, the leadership of the church. Wherever there may be disagreements or discontent among leaders it should be expressed and resolved in meetings with the other leaders. The surest path to wider congregational discontent will be for leaders to act, comment, or react in ways that suggest fraction and division among the leaders. When members stumble on issues that divide the leadership, or issues that the leaders are currently weighing, we should politely and with positive tone invite their continued prayers for the leaders as the discussions continue. We must cultivate a culture and discipline in our churches that “makes every effort to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3), and this culture must begin with and be modeled by the leadership. Our public comments go a long way in spreading authority, supporting that authority, and preventing or amplifying tensions that lead to division.

I have served as an elder in two churches prior to being given the gift and privilege of serving as senior pastor at FBC. Both of those pastors, Peter Rochelle and Mark Dever, were good models of submission to the elders as a whole. They were “first among equals,” but they did not abuse that position and authority. They accepted counsel, they listened, they contributed, and they were longsuffering with those of us who disagreed and in many cases knew less about an issue than they. They were willing, despite better biblical and theological knowledge and greater wisdom from experience, to submit to the direction of the entire group. That was humble submission.

That’s not to say there weren’t times when they were strongly convicted about an issue and would hold the line. There were times of disagreement, sometimes strong disagreement. In those times, the group of elders needed to be humble and to submit. We needed to determine more precisely (a) what questions needed to be answered, (b) what decision criteria were operative, (c) what mutual goals should govern us, and (d) what exact timeline for making a decision was necessary or wise. In those situations, by God’s grace, mutual submission, trusting that all who shepherd have the same goal—the glory of God revealed in His bride the church—provides much needed unity in the leadership. This can take time to build, but toiling for it is necessary for protecting the church from splits. We must war against our sense of “entitlement” as pastors or elders, and against the conceit that whispers to us that we see more clearly or more learnedly than our brothers who lead with us, and give ourselves to cultivating godly humility that submits.

Lastly, leaders must lead. Pastors must lead. There is a danger of being overly passive in the face of situations and decisions that require clear thinking and charting a course. In those cases we must lead.

And we can’t be afraid to lead. There may be 1,000 things we must be sensitive to, but we must resist the paralysis that comes from over-analyzing and tea leaf reading. Leadership is as much an act of faith as prayer. We must trust that God is at work in our leadership of the church, and that He will providentially rule in our prayerful efforts.

And we must not be afraid to lead the church toward a split in order to prevent a split.

This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, the entire series of posts is about preventing splits.

I’m convinced that merely showing up and being yourself will be a “splitting” factor for some people. We can not give in to fear of man and seek to please people. It is required of stewards that they be faithful. And sometimes being faithful requires upsetting some apple carts. You don’t necessarily start out to do so, but in the course of applying God’s Word and pursuing faithful church practice some disgruntlement is bound to happen. When it does… we must keep leading. For some, this will have the feel of “forcing” an ever so gradual “split” of sorts, as people who are opposed to biblical faithfulness peel away and leave.

If this is necessary, then hopefully that’s a one-by-one peeling, with people leaving in positive rather than disruptive ways. But if we’re being faithful, we must remember that we’re building deeper foundations that hopefully the church can rest upon in strength for generations to come. We must not let the short-term struggles that arise over this or that issue to upset the long-term goal of preserving the unity and growing the entire body into full maturity in Christ.


Shawn Abigail said...

Hi Thabiti,

From a Biblical perspective, how do you defend the idea of a church pastor being first among equals? I understand that in churches that follow the Biblical practice of leadership by a plurality of elders, one of those elders may work full time in teaching the word of God. But I can't get my head around the idea that one of these elders would be first, or be the primary leader. Can you make a Biblical case for this, or is this simply a practice that some churches follow but which has no Biblical support? Thanks for your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

It is with heavy sadness that I penned this comment. My church, which I grew up in, just went through a split because one faction believed the church had been mistreating the pastor and his co-workers. What's more, the pastor himself supported this split. He disclosed instances about how he was being mistreated, and painted a very negative picture of the leaders who unjustly treated him. All who heard him felt that it was an injustice done to the servant of the Lord.

What's more painful to me is, I was one of that faction.

How did we right this wrong? We decided to leave the church and start a new one.

After a public resignation by half of the council members (including the chairperson, we left the church and started a new one. Those who were left behind were confused by our action. We did gave our explanations after that, but by then we had terminated our membership at the old church, so that there are no room for negotiation.

Now I began to question my decision to leave like this. Had we done wrong? We are told that, if we stayed to settle the issue openly, it will lead to more strife and even physical violence, so to prevent that from happening, we should leave quietly and immediately. Was that a right reasoning?

I wish to know what you meant when you said, "And we must not be afraid to lead the church toward a split in order to prevent a split." I don't quite understand that part. Does that mean my pastor was doing the right thing?

Last but not least, I need your prayers. I do not wish to disclose my name for fear that it may stumble those I know who may read this blog. But the Lord knows that I'm desperately seeking an answer.

Thank you. Your posts had been really helpful to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Anonymous for your comments. I am exactly in the middle of a situation virtually the same as yours. If you see this message, can you reply and tell us the end of the story? Did you make the right decision? Was it a Paul and Barnabas ending? Should oyu have stayed? Blessings!