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Joe McKeever Christian Blog and Commentary

Church bullies have always been part of the ecclesiastical landscape.

They had them in the first century, as evidenced by the tiny epistle of Third John. A brute named Diotrephes was ruling his congregation with a strong hand.  The Evangelist John turned the spotlight on what the man was doing, which ordinarily is sufficient to arouse the congregation to unseat the man. John ended with a promise: “If I come, I will call attention to what he is doing.”

Don’t miss the understatement of that: “I will call attention to what he is doing.”

That will be quite enough.  When the Beloved Apostle (for so was John known in the early church) stands before an adoring congregation and informs the membership what their so-called leader has been doing behind their backs, they will deal with him.

That has always been the Lord’s plan:  Tell the church, expose the brute, expect God’s people to do the right thing.

We’re not talking about taking matters into our own hands or doing anything heavy-handed.

Even though the flesh wants to drag the church boss out back and give him “what for,” that is never the right approach. Nor should we plot and maneuver and scheme behind closed doors. The Lord’s people must never adopt the deceitful tactics of the tyrants.  We are to be “as shrewd as snakes and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

American history provides a near-perfect example of how to bring down a bully. It’s not a simple story, but I’ll do my best…

The tyrant throwing his weight around without a thought as to who got hurt in the process was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.  Google his name and pull up a chair, because the information on this brute will keep you occupied for days. Entire libraries have been written on what this man did in the first half of the decade of the 1950s. A shorter version can be seen on wikipedia.

Senator Joe McCarthy was riding the wave of the Communist scare and accusing various governmental agencies of harboring Reds, being directed by Reds, or outright cooperating with the Kremlin. In his speeches, he would wave papers which he said contained the names of 250 or 125 or 306 known Communists working for this or that agency.  When he or his staff found that some prominent person really had belonged to an organization that was a Communist front during the Great Depression, McCarthy was off and running. He would hound that guy into an early grave, then move right along to his next victim.

The public did not know what to think.

The American people rightly feared Communism, seeing it on display in Asia with all its fierceness and cruelty. The last thing they wanted was for the USA to fall under its power. The question was how to stand against it.  McCarthy, we were to learn in time, was primarily interested in becoming a hero and would do anything to achieve it. After the Second World War, he lied about his war record in order to receive distinguished recognition, which would enhance his political career, and bitterly attacked anyone who dared oppose him.  More than one person with a questionable affiliation in his past committed suicide rather than endure a public lynching at the hands of McCarthy’s team.

When the U.S. Army refused to give special treatment to a McCarthy aide who had been drafted, the senator turned his guns on the military.  He accused the Army of harboring Communists, and the fight was on.  As the namecalling and mudslinging intensified, the Senate decided to hold hearings and settle the matter.  McCarthy chaired the committee that would inherit this assignment, so another senator was chosen to lead the hearings which would last over a month.

America was transfixed.

ABC-TV decided to do something unheard of in 1954.  They aired the senate hearing from gavel to gavel.  (Bear in mind, television was still in its infancy, there was no C-Span, and most network news programs at the supper hour ran for 15 minutes.)

This is how the American people got to see Senator McCarthy exposed as the bully and tyrant that he was.  The programs were live and unedited, meaning the tactics of the senator were on public view for all to see.

Boston lawyer Joseph Welch was hired to represent the Army in the hearings.  He was a class act, a distinguished man, in high contrast with the flabby McCarthy who always looked like he needed to shave last week and was often under the influence of alcohol.

Had Hollywood been casting this scene, it could not have picked two more likely actors for these roles.

McCarthy’s approach was always to “attack, attack, and then attack again.”  He rarely explained what he did and almost never gave a satisfactory answer to questions.  He simply kept the opponent on the defensive. And this day, he accused Attorney Welch of having a young lawyer with ties to a Communist organization working for his firm back in Boston.

Welch had an answer.

Welch explained that when he was first asked to represent the Army in these hearings, he wanted to bring two young attorneys from Boston with him to Washington. He asked if either had anything in his past which McCarthy could use against him. One of the two admitted that when he was in law school, he belonged to a young attorney’s group which was later found to be controlled by the Communists.  Welch sent him back to Boston, because he knew McCarthy would turn that against the Army, as he did. Even though the young attorney was not on Welch’s team in Washington, but merely with his firm in Boston, McCarthy exposed this “grave wrong,” and implied that Mr. Welch was thus untrustworthy.

That’s when Mr. Welch said what he did.  Right there on national television, with millions of Americans watching, Welch spoke the immortal lines that would ultimately end McCarthy’s career.

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”

Welch was soft-spoken and gracious. His words were like knives.

When McCarthy tried to interrupt and continue the attack, Welch softly but angrily continued:

“Let us not assassinate the lad further, Senator.  You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Historians tell us that overnight McCarthy’s popularily plummeted.  Not long after, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy and strip him of his chairmanship.

Ostracized by his party, ignored by the press, and abandoned by his supporters, McCarthy died 3 years later, a broken man, only 48 years old.

Brought down by public exposure and relentless, though gentle, questioning.

That’s how church bullies are to be dealt with.  (Question: Why not bullies of all kinds, in the workplace or playground or political arena?  Answer: Church bullies are a breed apart, having the same self-centered run-roughshod goals as all other tyrants but they tend to be subtler and work behind the scenes. Exposure is the last thing in the world church bullies want.)

1) Church bullies need to be exposed in a public forum.  The tactic of modern-day Diotrephes is almost always to work off-radar, sending their lackeys to do their bidding.

2) The best public forum to expose the bully would be a church business meeting.  Woe to the church which, under the leadership of a pastor who dislikes being held accountable, has canceled regular times of reporting to the congregation.

3) The questioner needs to be someone Christlike, mature, and gracious.  If he/she is pugilistic (i.e., they love a good fight), the congregation will see this as two fighters going at each other, and nothing will come from it.

4) The questioner makes no charges, but merely raises questions, letting the congregation think for themselves.  And some will.

5) Some questions that will often expose a bully include “Who decided that this would be done?”  or “How was the decision made to do this?”  “Moderator, could we ask the chair of that committee to explain this action?”

6)  Once the appropriate person has been made to tell the congregation what was done and why it was done, if this is unsatisfactory or if it is obvious that important pieces of information are missing, followup questions are in order. These are of the same kind and gracious manner: “I don’t understand, Brother Chairman. You say (such and such) and yet the congregation had specifically said (thus and so).  Help me out here.”  Or, “You said (such and such) but the church constitution specifically says we are to do (thus and so). I don’t understand.”

7) The questioner makes no charges, accuses no one of deceit or underhandedness.

8) When it becomes obvious that no more information will be forthcoming, the questioner may do one of two things: sit down silently, leaving the clear impression that he/she is not satisfied with what has been said, or make a gentle statement in the manner of Robert Welch at the McCarthy hearings.  Perhaps nothing more than, “Well, then, we are not the church I thought we were.”  Or, “Mr. Bully, did you not pray about this?  Did you not ask the Lord what He wanted done?”

9) Silence should follow.  When the gentle (persistent, gracious but devout) questioner sits down, there will be a stillness as the congregation absorbs what they have just heard.  And then, it should happen….

10) Some strong, faithful leader who has followed all this, now senses that the congregation is ready to do something that should have been done long ago: Deal with the bully.  So, he/she rises and makes a motion to the moderator concerning action to be taken.  What that action is, I have no clue. It depends on what’s going on.  It may be something as benign as rescinding the action of the committee run by the bully.  Or, it may be a motion to “vacate” that committee (unseat all the members of the committee) or to ask Chairman Bully to step down.  Perhaps the leader who rises to make a motion simply wants the pastor to appoint a committee of three or four who will study this matter and bring a report back to the church. If this is done, the person who did the questioning (above) should be the first one appointed.

Harmless as doves, wise as serpents.

That says it all.

POST SCRIPT:  A few questions arise….

1) Some will always ask, “What if the pastor is the bully?” Answer: Deal with him the same way, in an open forum where the congregation is present.

2) What if the pastor has been so sufficiently buffaloed by the bully that he does not want anyone to “stir up” the congregation by publicly exposing the tyrant?  Answer: This is not about the pastor. The goal is to have a healthy church, and the Diotrephes is interfering with that.  So, stand up in the business meeting anyway. I can guarantee that after the bully has been de-clawed, any pastor will be eternally grateful.

3) Speaking of declawing Diotrephes, what if the church action following the questioning did not unseat him and he’s still around?  In most cases, the public embarrassment he experienced was sufficient to issue a wakeup call to him and to send his lackeys scurrying.

The opening statement of this article is an eternal verity, I’m afraid. The bullies will always be around. Therefore, the Lord’s faithful children must never drop their guard, never agree to cancel regular church business meetings, and always encourage questioning from the congregation.  Exposure carries no threat to the godly.

“I will sing a new song to Thee, O God….” (Psalm 144:9)

The message from a friend raised a question I’d not thought of: “Can you tell me how to freshen up my prayer time? My prayers all sound the same after a while. I get tired of my own words, so I know the Lord must.”

How, he wanted to know, does one freshen up his prayers?

Herewith my thoughts on that subject. (I speak as an expert on absolutely nothing, but simply as one believer encouraging another.)

1. Freshness is overrated.

When my grandchild enters the room, I’m not listening for something new from her. She crawls into my lap, hugs my neck, and speaks the same words I have heard again and again, but which never grow old or stale: “I love you, grandpa.”

I love you, too, honey.

(A personal word to my grandchildren who read this. I know, I know–you’re growing up and not given to “crawling into grandpa’s lap” the way you once did. The oldest of you is Leah, 23, and the youngest is JoAnne, 15.  In between are Jessica, 22, Abby and Erin, 16, and Darilyn, 15. But you will understand what I’m saying here. I so adore these 6 granddaughters and just as much our 2 grandsons, Grant 18 and Jack 11.)

2. Freshness may be more for us than for the Lord.

Since He sees on the heart and knows the mind before a thought is formed, it’s not as if our Heavenly Father “needs” a new or better expression of our devotion. This is why, so long as our hearts are in it, prayers and scriptures we have memorized may still be effective in drawing us closer to the Heavenly Father. What the Lord seems not to care for are mindless recitations of memorized prayers.

I frequently begin my prayer period with scriptures I memorized decades ago but which continue to inspire me. “My soul doth magnify the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). “I will call upon the Lord who is greatly to be praised; So shall I be saved from my enemies. The Lord liveth; and blessed be the Rock, and let the God of my salvation be exalted” (Psalm 18:3,46).

I recite the Lord’s prayer, sometimes more than once if I sense my mind is wandering or not getting into the meaning of those words.

3. Nothing teaches us how to pray and to pray freshly like the Holy Scriptures.

a) We see how others prayed and are instructed by the pattern of their praise and intercessions.

I love the prayer of Elijah at Carmel: “Lord, let these people know there is a God in Israel and (while you’re at it) that I am your servant!” (I Kings 18:36).  As a pastor, I have prayed that repeatedly when it seemed that a few people were trying to undermine my leadership or countermand my messages. And, I’m happy to say, the Lord always answered.

b) We read a passage and are inspired to “pray those same words.”  Praying Scripture–that is, asking the Lord to do in us what He said in that text–is always a great way to lift our intercessions out of the doldrums.

Praying the Beatitudes, we would ask that the Lord would help us to be poor in spirit that we might receive the kingdom of Heaven, that we might mourn over the sinful condition of our world in order to receive His comfort, that we might be gentle and thus inherit the earth.

Jesus taught the pathway to greatness is through serving people (Matthew 19:26-28). So, either privately in my closet or publicly in a worship service, it would be worthwhile to pray for this–for the desire to serve (not just occasionally but as a way of life), for the willingness to lay ambition and self-centeredness on His altar daily, for the love that makes servanthood authentic, and for my focus to remain on Jesus Christ and nothing else.

c) My favorite approach is to find a verse of Scripture that “has my name on it” (that is, it seems to jump off the page, demand my attention, and insist that I camp out there for a while) and reflect on it, then pray it.

Case in point…

“How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, Whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Psalm 146:5).  We read that verse, conclude there’s nothing notable about it and go on. But by camping out on it, by meditating upon these words and asking the Lord to open them to us, we begin to see wonderful insights.

–He is the God of Jacob.  Jacob was his original name, replaced later by Israel. Jacob was the one who lied and cheated and swindled his brother.  God is the God of some mightly flawed people. And aren’t we glad of that! This is encouragement.

–God loved Jacob just where he was, but loved him enough not to leave him there.  So, the Lord allowed him to go through a testing/disciplining time in the household of his uncle, and later appeared to him for a time of refocusing.  God took the flawed Jacob and turned him into a champion, Israel.

–This is the kind of God we serve, who is our help, our hope. Our help today (and in ages past), our hope for all the future.

–And how encouraging is that!

And so, my prayer–inspired strictly by that one verse of Scripture–might go something like this….

“Dear Lord, You have said in your holy word ‘How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.’ That’s us, our Lord. You are our help–the One called along side us to guide and strengthen us for the assignments you have given us. And you are our hope–the One to whom we focus all our expectations for the future, in this life and beyond.

“We find comfort in knowing that our Heavenly Father is the One who took a weakling like Jacob, a man of many faults and flaws, and you showed great patience in leading him through the years, eventually making him a great champion of faith.  Father, do that in us please.

“Be patient with our flaws; but give us victory over them. Your word says, ‘He himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.’ So, you are under no illusion about us. You knew you were getting no bargain when You redeemed us. Thank you for redeeming us, for calling us, and for your infinite patience as we have stumbled along. But make us strong. Make us champions for thee.

“Father, lift up our spirits, anchor our hopes in Thee, set our feet on the solid rock and energize us as we go forth into this day to serve Thee.

“For Jesus’ sake, Amen.”

The rest of Psalm 146 expounds on the theme of the Lord showing favor to the flawed and fallen.

vs 7 “He executes justice for the oppressed”

vs 8 “He opens the eyes of the blind”

vs 9 “The Lord protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow; but He thwarts the way of the wicked.”

There is so much prayer material there.

d) Got time for one more?  Isaiah 62:6-7 gives us a prayer-insight in Scripture not mentioned anywhere else, to my knowledge. It’s demonstrated again and again, but this seems to be the only place that refers to prayer as “reminding” the Lord.

“On your walls O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; All day and all night they will never keep silent; You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves; and give Him no rest until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth.” 

You who remind the Lord.

That’s us.

When we pray, we are not telling the Lord anything He doesn’t already know. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).  He already knows, but we will remind Him.

This kind of prayer is demonstrated in numerous Psalms, as well as David’s prayer over the materials collected to build the temple (I Chronicles 29:10-19), Solomon’s prayer of dedication of that house of worship (II Chronicles 6:14-42), Jehoshaphat’s prayer when Judah was invaded by a pagan coalition (II Chronicles 20:5-12), and my favorite, the early church’s prayer when threatened by the religious authorities (Acts 4:23-31).

The thing to notice in these prayers (and so many similar throughout Scripture) is the form the pray-ers used…

–they reminded the Lord of Who He is.

–they reminded the Lord of what He had done.

–they reminded the Lord of what He had said (promised).

–and then, they reminded the Lord of their present situation.

–finally, they reminded the Lord of what they needed, their specific request.

An admission here: This concept is too weighty to address in a sermon, but is ideal for a classroom situation when everyone is relaxed and can take notes, look up references, and ask questions. I enjoy sharing it with pastors, and encourage them to construct their Sunday morning pastoral prayers in this manner. 

How many other ways are there for freshening up one’s prayers?

Only a thousand. Use a hymnal, borrow a Book of Common Prayer from your Episcopal friend (or do as I did and purchase one), and read books of prayers. Read books aboutpraying.  Go online and listen to the prayers of preachers.

And, if you do nothing else, please bear in mind our first two observations: 1) freshness is probably over-rated and 2) it’s more for us than for the Lord.

Now, let us pray!!

“Lord, do you know the Pharisees were offended by your sermon?”
Matthew 15:12

Let me say up front that no church can long endure a steady diet of negative preaching. No Christian, no matter how faithful, can withstand an unending barrage of sermons directed toward straightening them out. On a regular basis, we need messages reminding us we are loved, God is faithful, Heaven awaits, and there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

But sometimes the minister enters the pulpit with a burdensome task: to attempt a diagnosis, surgery, and amputation all in a 25 minute message. At those times, the sermon must cut deeply.

At those times, the message hurts.

How the Lord’s people ever came to expect their pastors to declare the riches of His Word without offending wrong-doers is beyond me.

It cannot be done.

“Offenders will take offense.” Remember that. As columnist Dear Abby put it, “You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers got hit.”

Delivering the commands of Scripture on how to live and think, how to re-prioritize our lives and change our behavior, and bring every detail of our existence under the Lordship of Jesus Christ without treading on anyone’s toes is expecting a little much of the preacher.

George Whitefield, the great British preacher of the 18th century, gave us an unforgettable line on this….

“It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”

We preachers are a strange lot.

We will know this – that preaching is supposed to challenge the status quo and disturb the complacent and upset the pretentions of the hypocritical – and then turn around and feel like a failure when someone gets mad at us for doing it well.

“Where did I fail? Someone is angry with me!”

What a crybaby.

C’mon, warrior. Gird up your loins. Be strong in the Lord.

The deacon had no appointment because this urgent matter had robbed him of sleep through the night and surely demanded the preacher’s immediate attention.

“Pastor, that sermon yesterday.”

“Yes. The one on materialism.”

“Are you aware that some in the congregation were offended by it?”

“Ha. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Well, to be specific, pastor, Mr. Crenshaw, the owner of the big plant out at the edge of town – you know he employs half the givers in our church, the people who pay your salary! – told Deacon Johnson that he felt like getting up and walking out when you said what you did.”

“What did I say? What are you referring to?”

“You know, when you said that the man who stored up wealth was a fool.”

“I didn’t say that, my friend. Jesus said it.”

“Well, that’s one way of putting it. I know it’s there in the Bible somewhere.”

“Not just ‘somewhere,’ Deacon, but here in Luke 12:20. God called the man a fool. I was just quoting Him.”

“Well, that’s not how Mr. Crenshaw took it.”

“So, what are you suggesting?”

“Some of us think it would be good if you went to see Mr. Crenshaw and apologized. We need influential people like him in our church.”

And the pastor said, “Why?”

That is the question that has no answer.

Why do we think we need carnal people in the church just because they exercise power over men and control wealth in the world? Is God weak and in need of their assistance? Should the church apply for welfare? Go on disability?

Jesus did not soften His approach and sweeten His words to the Pharisees. “With your tradition, you actually violate the command of God” (Matthew 15:3). “Your tradition nullifies the commands of God” (15:6).

He called them names.

“Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you saying, ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (15:7-9).

That kind of preaching is not carefully calculated to impress the influential and draw in the powerful.

One of the worst things ever to happen to the Lord’s church was when it decided to tone down its preaching in order to attract the world’s crowd. As though the Lord needs them and as though the size of the crowd validates either the message or the messenger.

Lord help us.

The Lord Jesus Christ is not insecure, not powerless, and not suffering from low self-esteem. He does not “feel better about Himself” when a bigshot condescends to show up in church and honor Him with his presence.

The Lord does not need anyone and the size of the crowd proves nothing. Anyone doubting this will benefit from reading John 6:60-66. Jesus actually dialed up the intensity and sharpened the offense of His preaching to drive out the unbelievers and enrage the fence-straddlers.

Pastors do two very foolish things in this regard, both of them Christ-insulting.

  1. They present insipid, uninspired, safe, offenseless messages designed to please everybody with their sweetness and pleasantries. We call it “positive thinking” and even “good news.” (But good news is only that if it addresses and remedies a bad situation. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.)
  2. When they get it right and someone gets mad at the truth they preached, they feel that in some way they have failed in their assignment and want to go apologize to the Pharisees.

Sometimes the sermon is wimpish and sometimes the preacher is the wimp.

Consider this a call for preaching that tells the truth and offends the untruthful, that is sharper than a two-edged sword and just as dangerous, and that lays it on the line Sunday after Sunday without regard to what this does to the pastor’s job security.

If I am hoarding God’s money or spending it on my own pleasures, let the pastor preach a ringing sermon condemning materialism even if it angers me. My anger proves he hit his mark.

If I am afraid of the world and cower in my home rather than go down the street to witness to my neighbor, let the pastor call us to “rescue the perishing” and make us feel guilty when we do not. If I take it personally, good. I should not feel good about cowardice and disobedience.

If I am neglecting my family in order to carve out a bigger piece of success in the world, let the pastor preach God’s word on the father’s responsibility to husband his wife and nurture his children and protect his home. If it offends, so be it. He has been fingered by the Almighty; let him hurt a little; it’s good for him.

If I am devoting my energies and investing my wealth on foolish pursuits like supporting ball teams and traveling to distant cities for meaningless sport, let the pastor ask us “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” And let him care not one whit whether half the congregation gets angry at him. In eternity, they will rise up and bless him.

Pastors have bigger goals than pleasing a congregation, larger aims than job security, and a higher priority than a great reputation. The Apostle Paul who “got” this, said, “If I should please men, I would not please God” (Galatians 1:10).

Every pastor has to choose.

One final word. Consider this a call to churches to grow up and free the preacher to declare the whole counsel of God, letting the chips fall where they may.

Let the deacon leadership keep reminding one another and the entire congregation from time to time, “If a preacher does his job well, people will sometimes be offended. If you get offended by our minister’s preaching, do not come running to us with a complaint. We thank God for such a faithful pastor.”

Every church has to choose whether it is willling to hear from God or to be rocked to sleep by the Lord’s messenger. The first can be painful, the second is scandalous.

“Lord, bless your church please.”

Publication date: January 14, 2015

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