Joe McKeever Christian Blog and Commentary

Leaders: Find the Devil in Pew Number Seven

  • Joe McKeever

    Joe McKeeverhas been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He…

  • Updated Dec 16, 2011


Leaders: Find the Devil in Pew Number Seven

(Second in our series on the League of Church Members Extraordinary)

Deacons and other mature leaders of the church have a responsibility probably not spelled out in their bylaws, but as necessary as any given them in scripture or by the membership: Be on a constant lookout for trouble and troublemakers within the congregation.

The Apostle Paul told the Ephesian leaders that they could expect deadly threats to the congregation's survival to arise from two sources: outside and inside. (Acts 20:29ff) The first they would have expected. It is no secret that the devil wants to destroy the church and neutralize its effectiveness, and will use any means necessary to pull that off.

It was the second--enemies arising from within the body itself--that must have surprised them. Had those leaders been as trusting and naive as many of us, they would have expected all the worshipers to be loving and gracious, faithful and trusting, and would have been blindsided by tyrants arising from their own number.

So, Scripture warns us to be alert, to be watchful in both directions.

This is not the pastor's job alone. Granted, he is charged with this responsibility. But in a congregation of hundreds or even thousands, he needs eyes and ears other than his own. He needs the deacons and Sunday School teachers--note that we are assuming them to be godly and mature--to keep their eyes and ears open, their antennae up, to remain always vigilant.

They are to watch out for the devils in their midst, plainly put.

Rebecca Nichols Lonzo's new book, "The Devil in Pew Number Seven," ought to read by every pastor and leader.

In the 1970s, Rebecca's father went to pastor a small Holiness congregation in rural North Carolina. Everything about it seemed normal at first. The people were warm and gracious, they built a new parsonage, and they appreciated Pastor Nichols' messages. There was, however, one problem.

The devil sat on the last row, in pew number seven. And he ran this church.

Mr. Horry Watts, richest man in the county, lived across the street from the church. From his throne on the back row, he called the shots.

The oddest thing about that is that the old man was not a member of the congregation. In fact, he was not even a professing believer.

His power and influence stemmed from his financial dealings, personal intimidation over individuals, and his wife. Mrs. Watts lorded it over a women's Sunday School class and was the church clerk/treasurer. No one but they knew the church's finances. There were no treasurer's reports and no one was allowed to look at the books.

Soon, Pastor Nichols began to exert leadership within the congregation. The members voted to replace Mrs. Watts as teacher and elected another clerk/treasurer. When the time came to turn over the books to the new officer, she handed the clerk a new checkbook with the present bank balance listed. Nothing else. No one ever knew what was done with the church money during her tenure.

From this point on, old man Watts dedicated himself to getting rid of the preacher. He began with anonymous notes and phone calls. Soon, he graduated to the heavier stuff: shooting up the mailbox and setting off dynamite near the house.

Over a space of several years, even though law enforcement authorities became involved, the old man and his hired thugs continued their reign of terror. It culminated with a gunman entering the parsonage and shooting the pastor twice and killing his wife. The man was arrested and sentenced to life in prison, but Horry Watts was not implicated.

An FBI agent eventually put together a case against Horry Watts and brought charges. He changed his plea from "not guilty" to "nolo contendre" when a gunman testified that Watts had paid him to run over the preacher with his automobile, then backed out. Watts was sent to prison.

After the death of his wife and recovering from his own wounds, Pastor Nichols was no longer able to function and resigned the church. In time, he had a nervous breakdown and eventually lost his mind. He died at the age of 46, as I recall.

Last Tuesday--three days ago--my copy of this book arrived in the mail. Anyone who reads this blog knows that church-controllers in the pews is a regular, although reluctant, theme here, so when this book was recommended, I ordered it immediately. (Published in 2010 by Tyndale, it's available new or used at and That afternoon at 5 pm, my wife began some preparatory steps for a medical test the next day. In between, I began reading this book aloud to her. At 8:30, we finished it. That's how intriguing and captivating we found this sad tale.

I laid the book aside wondering several things. Where were the laymen in the congregation? Why did the godly and mature leaders not step up and deal with this tyrant? Why did they leave it to the embattled pastor to handle all this?

It appears from Lonzo's book that the members of the congregation limited themselves to caring for the emotional needs of their pastor and his family. They loved the Nichols' and fed them, took them into their homes, and grieved when tragedy struck. But they abandoned their pastor where he needed them most: he needed a few men to step in and take this burden off his shoulders and deal with the devil.

I have my own gentler story of the devil in pew number seven.

It is not, let me emphasize, of the magnitude as Pastor Nichols' situation, and it turned out well.

His name was Earl and this was my seminary pastorate. I was 25 years old, just learning how to lead a church, and determined to get this right. The church ran 40 in attendance. When they voted on me as pastor, six people had opposed us.

No matter. The Lord wanted us there, and we promptly moved from the seminary campus in town, into the small apartment in the rear of the church.

Immediately, I saw a problem. Earl sat in the middle of the congregation with his arms folded and a scowl on his face. As eloquently as possible, he was communicating displeasure over his new kid preacher. I was not alone in noticing it. More than one person called our attention to what he was doing.

After two or three Sundays putting up with this, I decided something had to be done. One Sunday, just as our little family finished lunch, I called Earl. "May I come over for a few minutes?" "Sure. Come on." He told me how to find his house in the next town.

Earl was divorced man and was raising three children, two teenage sons and a younger daughter. He owned a trailer park next to his house as his source of income.

Sitting in his living room, I said, "Earl, tell me what's wrong."

He said, "What do you mean?"

I said, "Your unhappiness with me is written all over your face as I preach. I want to know if I have done something or failed you in any way."

"Nope. I don't have any problem with you."

"Then," I said, "what is it? There's something wrong."

He explained that he and his sister-in-law and the four children had been the six 'no' votes concerning my call. "I just felt that we've had seminary students for too long, and our church is in a stalemate. We need a full-time pastor."

Oh great. They're running 40 in attendance and he wants a full-time pastor. The weekly income at that time was less than $150.

I recall nothing more about our visit. We prayed together, and that was the end of it. Earl became a great friend and supporter. In fact, we remained friends until his death some 30 years later when I held his funeral.

The worst thing members of the congregation can do when a devil sits in the pews is to ignore him, hoping he will go away.

Devils-in-the-pews--let's call them DIPS--thrive off the passivity of the congregation. DIPS have contempt for the members in general, believe them to be cowards, and know from long experience their willingness to back off and give power to the person with the loudest voice and most intimidating manner.

Here are my five suggestions. Ahem, let me rephrase that. Here are five strong recommendations for church leaders in regard to the tyrants who want to infiltrate the congregation and control it.

1. If this is left to the pastor, you're sunk.

The preacher is the focus of the DIPS. So, anything he does to stand up to the tyrants is considered self-serving by some. Being Christlike, he has an uncanny ability to absorb great amounts of pain and personal injury. He might choose to do nothing rather than do what some would interpret as retaliation.

In Pastor Nichols' case, the head of the Ku Klux Klan stepped up and offered (in secret) to "take out" Horry Watts if the pastor would give the sayso. While violence is never the answer, a prompt response from strong laypeople is in order.

2. However, there are rare occasions when the pastor can handle it alone.

Contradictory? Probably. You'll notice that I handled it with Earl without involving anyone else. And my pastor tells me a similar story of the time he confronted an actual evil-doer in the church and it turned out well.

So, there are exceptions. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in this.

3. No person should attempt to resolve this alone.

(Once again, there are exceptions. Smiley-face goes here.)

Matthew 18's plan fits here. Admittedly, the first step given (18:15) is to go alone to see the offensive one. However, that's speaking of personal slights between two people. But since what we have here is a tyrant (or would-be tyrant) spreading trouble within the congregation, this should not be handled by a single individual.

At first, let two strong leader visit with Mr. Watts (or his counterpart in your congregation). If the matter is not resolved, a larger stronger contingent goes next time. The third time is when the congregation gets involved, if necessary. Do all you can to keep it from coming to that.

4. In the first visit, the leadership duo goes with a single question.

They ask the DIP the same one I posed to Earl all those years ago: "What's wrong?" They are not making charges, but seeking information.

Now, he will give the same answer Earl did. "What do you mean?"

That's when they tell their perception of what he is doing or share the reports they are hearing or say what they have seen and heard.

Let them listen to his response. Even if it appears he has been a trouble-maker, there is always the possibility that something else is going on, something completely unforeseen to them.

If the trouble-maker has a genuine beef--if he identifies some actual problem which has prompted his actions--the leadership duo has a responsilility to begin the steps to address it. In most cases, they will report to the pastor and start there.

If the man perceived as a DIP is indeed an actual troublemaker, the leadership team lets him know in unambiguous language that his actions must be stopped immediately.

5. Then, the leadership duo enlarges their team.

The pastor needs to be kept informed, and at least two or three of the most respected leaders should be drawn into the circle. If nothing else, just to keep them informed. If action is to be taken, their counsel will be needed.

It's clear that this entire approach is contingent on a church having a small corps of dedicated and godly, mature leaders. Ideally, they are serving in elected positions within the church, and such actions will naturally fall to them. In any case, the members who take the lead will be required to have a unique blend of courage and humility.

"Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:3)

If the DIP is violating the law, church leaders have an obligation to the pastor, to the church, and to the tyrant himself to report it. Call it "tough love." We do trouble-makers no favor when we let them destroy God's church or ruin a man's ministry.

Leadership in the Lord's church can be one of the greatest joys in life. But at times it can be the most difficult task a person ever faces.

If one does not have the courage to step up and speak truth to power--whether that power runs the community or preaches from the pulpit on Sundays--he should decline when nominated for high office within the congregation.

If one is not willing to do everything in his power to protect the ministry of the servant of God and the health of the church, if he wants high office in the congregation for the prestige, let him apologize to God and resign so someone faithful can fill the position.

Church leaders must always be on the alert. They must listen to reports as to what is being taught in classes. They must pay attention to idle chatter in the foyer or hallways prior to or following worship. They should monitor the attendance, the offerings, and other signs which could possibly indicate disaffection within the membership.

But--once again--no church leader should act alone. If he or she does, the perception may soon get out that this individual is trying to become a controlling tyrant himself. And that's the last thing you need.