Our Church Fights and How God Healed Them
Turf wars are inevitable between churches, countries and children. Whether we fight to sit in the same pew we’ve inhabited for eons or squabble over the line of demarcation drawn between factions, accommodating others is not our strong suit. The ideologies of servanthood and meekness often elude us.
Why do Christians squabble? Here are just a few examples:
Hard-nosed Stubbornness: Paul's Words of Wisdom
Church fights often escalate over insignificant issues when egos are bruised. Innocent onlookers suffer the fallout. Our first skirmish as a fledgling congregation centered around the purchase of new baby cribs. Irate nursery workers clashed over whether or not baby bed bars should be wooden or metal. The Wednesday night business meeting dragged on into the wee hours of the morning while our ladies slugged it out to win the coveted prize of having their way. Of course, nothing was settled that night. The skirmish lasted over a month. I think our infants snoozed in cardboard boxes nabbed from the Walmart down the street (not really). Obviously, the little ones who suffered from this tiff were too young to defend themselves.
The next tedious cat fight ensued over carpet color. The battle wasn’t even over a large patch of rug for the worship center. What color should we use in the church foyer (which was the size of a ladies’ bathroom)? “Red is holy!” cried one deaconess. “Burnt orange is trendy!” retorted a young mom who obviously fancied herself an interior designer. Here we go again! I personally believe church carpets should be the color of dirt. After muddy, rainy Sundays, grease scum tracked in from parking lot asphalt and an occasional vomit stain from a preschooler with intestinal flu, a lighter floor tone looks nice for only a nanosecond. Why not install a concrete floor with a drain and let the janitor hose it down during the week? Would it look too pedestrian, like the floor of a lion cage at the zoo? Probably. But conflicts over carpet needlessly wounded the new members of our tiny flock.
Paul penned words that provide some guidance in dealing with stubbornness: He wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3:
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? NIV
Spiritual children act like who they are -- immature kids. Helping them grow up spiritually by discipleship and prayer go a long way in letting Jesus develop humility in their lives. After all, the mature tree is the one that bears the fruit of the spirit. Such radical spiritual formation doesn’t occur overnight, but if a pastor is committed to the process long-term, I believe progress will be made.
Majoring on the Minors: What Bible Truths are Non-negotiable?
Fights over doctrine abound. Our first experience with vehement disagreements over “jots and tittles” in the Bible occurred at our denomination’s national convention. Jesus told us we would experience persecution for our faith, but this was a free-for-all brawl. I have never heard such venomous accusations and seedy political maneuvering. One party was bussing in delegates to sway the voting. The other side, incensed by such power-hungry pastors, actually came to blows on the convention floor. Women were crying and long-time colleagues bitterly parted ways. I have never witnessed such shenanigans before or since. This denomination was known for Biblical conservatism. Doctrinal hair-splitting was the name of the game. We never attended another national meeting. As a young pastor and wife, we couldn’t believe what we saw and heard.
Some Biblical doctrines are not negotiable. Jesus was the virgin-born Son of God. He was 100% God and 100% man. His substitutionary atonement on the cross paid the price for my sin. His resurrection is the guarantee that we can cheat death too. We must repent of our sin and receive Jesus as our personal Savior. The Word of God is true and infallible. End of story. Why quibble over details? Some answers we will only learn in heaven. If we know them all, our God is too small.
Peter and Paul duked it out in the book of Galatians 2:11-15 over whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised to come to Christ. But these two spiritual giants were not afraid to deal with their issues in a Christlike manner.
11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I (Paul) saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. NIV
Pastors are not Perfect: Be Vulnerable and Teachable!
Church leadership can make poor decisions. Over the course of our 30-year ministry, we’ve made our share of bloopers and blunders. One of the worst revolved around the relocation of our church to a new 100-acre site. Building a new campus and selling the old church site almost killed my husband. We were desperate to sell the old property to fund the new one. Home Depot offered us a hefty sum to buy our land, and we salivated at the offer. The neighbors who lived blocks away from our old church site went ballistic. One woman was our next-door neighbor and dearest friend. She led the crusade to stop the sale. As we presented our case to the city council, my husband gave an impassioned plea to sell the land and our friend castrated us in front of church members and neighbors alike. Our friendship almost never recovered. But she was right. The sale was halted, and months later we were able to ground-lease the land in smaller plots and generate income for years to come. It’s never too late to admit you are wrong. One of the things I love about my husband is that he’s transparent. What you see is what you get. And that honest humility has kept him in the ministry at the same church for two generations.
Paul speaks of the importance of humility in Romans 12:3:
3 And because of God's gracious gift to me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you should. Instead, be modest in your thinking, and judge yourself according to the amount of faith that God has given you. NIV
When Christianity Gets Uncomfortable: Link Arms in Faith!
Tucson, Arizona, where we pastored, was a Wild West town. Full of rugged individualists, Tucson also has a high percentage of Indian spiritists, witches, New Age proponents and ghost-busters. Roger and I grew up in the Bible belt and were quite unfamiliar with Satanic ritual abuse, blood sacrifice and all sorts of crazy occult chicanery. But my husband was baptized with fire. Counselees occasionally entered his office speaking in voices, displaying demonic symptoms and literally scaring the bejeebees out of him. After careful Biblical research and some professional help from our counseling staff, we learned about spiritual warfare. Quietly, our counseling staff begin intensive Biblical training and utilized the “Freedom in Christ” materials by Neal Anderson with patients who experienced demonic oppression. One of our deacons was furious. And he was a force to be reckoned with. Brother “Smith” was running for senator, and his best buddy in the church was the editor of our city’s largest newspaper. Thus began a crusade to get my husband canned. Reporters snooped around the church for weeks, grilling the staff and looking for dirt. One Sunday morning, Roger walked into the church foyer and an usher cried, “Roger, have you seen this?” There my hubby was, crucified on the front page of the Sunday morning news for his stance on spiritual warfare. Brother Smith bragged to his friends, “We’ve got him now. They’ll be lined up at his office door demanding his resignation.” Well, God used the article to galvanize others churches to address a pressing ministry issue in their own churches. But we’ve fought many a war over ministry philosophy since.
Paul and Barnabas parted ways over young John Mark, but in the end, John Mark became a valuable partner for Paul in his latter years.
36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts 15:36-40 NIV
Paul changed his mind about John Mark as he watched Mark’s ministry mature. The wizened old apostle wrote affirming words about John Mark in 2 Timothy 4:11.
11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. NIV
Disagreements: Get to the Heart of the Hurt.
In Mark, the gospel author writes that Jesus was hurt in his spirit and angry at the Pharisees in Mark 3:5. Hurt and anger are twin sides of a coin. People get hurt, then they get mad. Thenthey get even. What a nasty, but all too common cycle. The “worship wars” began in the early seventies and still divide congregations to this day. Here’s one example. An elderly lady saunters over to the sound booth, scowls at the kid running the sound and cries: “Turn that sound down!!!! Don’t you know we can’t worship God with that kind of music!” The poor kid hides under his seat and wishes he had overslept and missed the service. You see, the church music program had transitioned from the four-song hymn formula with piano and organ to a rhythm section with drums, bass and that devil-filled electric guitar.
But wait. What was that dear lady expressing? She just dumped a whole lot of hurt on an unsuspecting teen. You see, as we age, we lose the upper partials of our hearing, so she could only hear the thumping bass drum and never understood the singer’s words. Older people struggle with interference learning. When there is too much stimuli around them, they become anxious, frustrated and confused. Maude the mad parishioner can’t see the words on the screen. She needed a hymnal she could adjust to view the lyrics. But the hurt is really caused by none of the above. She grieves because all of the folks who once sat in her pew are either in a nursing home or in heaven. And one of those people was probably her spouse. She mourns the loss of control. Maude used to be choir president and helped to plan the services. Now no one is listening to her. Experts tell us the music we heard when we first fell in love or first came to Christ has the deepest emotional connection for us. None of the choruses the band members now sing reach her heart. Maude is hurting. Someone needs to help her process her pain.
Conversely, Maude’s grandson used to attend the traditional “hymn-singing” service she loved. The only time this kid ever heard an organ was at a ball game or the roller rink. He was a latch-key child and came home to a lonely house every day. He cranked up his iPod as loud as he could to mask his pain and depression. The music in Granny’s church was anemic and boring. Besides, they were singing about “wretches like me” and “raising my Ebenezer.” Isn’t retching throwing up your supper? And who is Ebenezer? Wasn’t he Scrooge from A Christmas Carol? What a waste of time. But Grandson won’t go see the sound man. He just won’t come back. And that generation is “not coming back” by the millions!
Before we fight our ecclesiastical battles, let’s peer behind the curtain and find the hurts of those who need to be comforted and helped. Looking beneath the surface is the first step to healing relationships.
Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:15:
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. NIV
Church wars will always be waged, as long as Satan is alive and kicking. They will increase in intensity as Jesus prepares to return and gather His own to Himself. In the meantime, let’s try a little kindness and choose our battles carefully.