Dear Roger, Our church just went through an awful split. I’ve heard about the ugliness of church fights but I never dreamed I’d actually be in one.
Many of what I’ll call, “the old guard,” don’t like the new direction some of the younger leaders are taking the church. The pastor was using his position to make the church relevant to today’s changing culture. What started as a low rumble between the two factions eventually erupted into war.
In a well-orchestrated and planned maneuver, about a third of the members got up and walked out of church just before the sermon. Unbeknownst to the old guard, the departing group had rented space in a local high school to start their own church.
The old guard is grieving. The departing group seems excited, but already cracks are showing in their fellowship. I am hurt and disillusioned. I’ve decided not to attend either church. I’ve been so hurt that I haven’t gone to church for over a month. Having observed so much pain and suffering, I’d like to know how do you heal a wounded church?
I’m sorry you got hurt and it grieves me that your church is devastated. I grieve every time that I speak on this topic and ask for a show of hands of all those who’ve experienced a church fight or split.
Fortunately, in answer to your query, Paul gives us a simple model for healing church hurts in a short paragraph in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
Someone in the Corinthian church hurt a lot of people. The church people retaliated and wounded the perpetrator even more. Both the individual and the church are hurting.
“If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him… If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
I don’t know how you read this, but I read a lot of pain in these words. The body has been wounded. People have been hurt. Pain is everywhere. And it needs to be healed.
This passage reminds me of the statement by Alexander MacLaren: “Please be kind to everyone you meet because everyone is fighting a battle.”
Most people’s battles aren’t obvious. We know that a person with a cast on his/her arm is hurt and will be well in six weeks or so. On the other hand, I can quietly mention one name to some people and bring tears to their eyes.
Every Christian will eventually be wounded in church—and in many other places as well.
Dave Ferguson writes: We live in a society where people are looking for perfect companions: “I want someone who will love me unconditionally, never let me down, disappoint, hurt, or cause me pain. And if you don’t love me unconditionally, let me down, disappoint, hurt, or cause me pain, then I’ll leave you, and find someone else who will love me unconditionally, won’t let me down, disappoint, hurt, or cause me pain.”
Unfortunately, people who think like this are doomed to disappointment.
How do we heal a wounded individual or a church body?
1. Be aware of Satan’s schemes.
- Sheep stink.
- Sheep need to be led, not driven.
- The sheep are not the enemy (Ephesians 6:10-12: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers in the demonic hierarchy...”).
Paul wrote that the Corinthians were not “unaware of Satan’s devices.” Unfortunately, in my experience, many Christians are quite unaware of Satan’s devices. Fortunately, Paul lists them for us.
- He delights in causing division and dissension in the church family.
- He encourages tolerating sin.
- He delights in harsh discipline which drives people away.
- He promotes an unforgiving spirit which leads to bitterness and resentment.
2. Discipline exposes issues so they can be handled openly and honestly.
Like dysfunctional families, many churches are dysfunctional.
- Dysfunctional families communicate double messages.
- In dysfunctional families love has to be earned.
- Denial and delusion often reign in dysfunctional settings.
Church discipline keeps us from becoming dysfunctional by giving us a method to bring wounds and pain out into the open where they can be properly handled (Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1-2; and Ephesians 4:15).
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 to “share the truth in love.” Most of us have never seen this. We have seen the truth shared in anger, bitterness, and resentment. We have seen people refuse to share the truth. Functional churches, like functional families, share the truth in love.
3. Forgiveness restores relationship so healing may proceed.
Forgiveness removes the offense as a barrier to future fellowship.
First, forgiving does not mean that we let those who hurt us “off the hook.” They need to pay for what they did. This is what justice is all about. When we forgive we may let them off our “hook,” but they are still on God’s “hook”! Remember the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine.” So, let Him do His work. He dispenses justice in His own time.
Second, forgiving is not a sign of weakness. Forgiveness is a courageous act that integrates the grace, kindness, and compassion of Christ.
Third, forgiving does not mean that we forget what they did to us. The pain of some things is so intense that we will never forget them. Nevertheless, by God’s grace we can forgive them.
Fourth, forgiving doesn’t mean that we restore the relationship with the ones who hurt us as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen. Trust was broken. Circumstances have changed. Abuse occurred. We may choose to establish boundaries, giving the offender the opportunity to regain our trust. We have the freedom to expand the boundary fence if we want to, or to leave it exactly where it is. We can restore the relationship someday if we want—or not restore it at all.
Fifth, you really do want to forgive before deep bitterness and resentment become ingrained.
Sixth, it’s not possible to be at peace with all people (Romans 12:7). As Christians we feel that we are required to fix every broken relationship and live in harmony with all of our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, some relationships just will not work out. It is okay to leave them behind and go on with others.
Finally, you know that you have forgiven them when you don't want to hurt them anymore.
4. Comfort heals hurts.
We don’t know much about how to bring comfort in American society.
Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
Your 14-year-old daughter is mercilessly teased on the school bus and comes weeping in the front door. You say to your child, “What did you do to cause them to treat you like that?”
I hope that’s not what you say.
What she needed was comfort. What she got was condemnation.
Comfort is weeping with those who weep: “I am so sorry. I know this really hurts!”
Let me give you some thoughts on what comfort sounds like:
- “I have a great pain and sadness that you were hurt by...”
- “I feel compassion for you because I love you...”
- “My heart is filled with sorrow because of what has happened to you...”
Comfort is filled with feeling words. It brings love, acceptance, security, approval, respect and understanding.
There is a time for encouragement, reasoning and figuring out how to fix it, but we don’t start there. Those things come later. Comfort is what heals the hurt.
5. Love loves the unlovable and never stops loving.
I was shaken by a small news item about a 14-year-old boy who took his own life because, as he wrote in his suicide note, “No one seems to care.”
He felt no love from anyone, except his dog. In that brief suicide note, he left instructions for the care of his dog.
“No one seems to care.” What a sharp rebuke to our lack of love. “Maybe that’s why the local tavern is such a popular place,” writes Charles Swindoll.
Well, Katie, I hope I’ve given you some helpful thoughts on how to heal a wounded church.
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
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