Church brawls

Paul offers four keys for lowering the level of conflict in your church-and for keeping the members' missiles directed away from you!

Jan G. Johnson pastors the Seventh-day Adventist church in Granger, Washington—which is not the scene of the battle he describes in this article.

What can only be called a religious war ignited in the church I was pastoring. A theological controversy, it was fanned by well-meaning but inflammatory publications from the fringe of Adventism. Battle lines formed, and members of the congregation took sides each viewing those on the other side as children of Satan. When the smoke cleared, 15 members no longer worshiped with us.

The conflict deeply affected me and my ministry. I began hounding the themes of unity and reconciliation, but with no visible results. Chairing a church meeting was like facing a firing squad. Those who before had provided the church with spiritual leadership fought like demons, trying to maintain their positions of power. The members involved saw every issue on the agenda in terms of the wider conflict. Before long I began to question my own call to the ministry, and I confess that at times I thought selling insurance looked pretty good.1

My experience is not unique among Adventist ministers. There are a number of forces in the church pushing for change, not the least of which are some independent publications that question administrative leadership and widely held theological views. Members who support these causes with offerings and even their tithe tend to withdraw from the church not only their financial support but also their allegiance.2 The result is that while these members may still worship with Adventist congregations, they see themselves as somehow different. They tend to see the church and its members as needing the new truth they have come to hold.

Paul warned the leadership of the Ephesian church about similar difficulties. He told them to be alert because "fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29, 30).3

Paul foresaw the kinds of attacks the church would experience: outside forces that would persecute, and churchmen on the inside who would draw away disciples by their perverse teachings. In the face of these threats, Paul counseled the leaders of the church in Ephesus to "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God" (Acts 20:28).

First Corinthians provides a classic ex ample of the care Paul envisioned Christian leaders giving their flocks. The members of the church at Corinth were largely Paul's converts. When, after establishing the church there, he moved on to new mission fields, various conflicts arose among them, factions loyal to different leaders (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 3:5- 23), problems because of immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-5), theological differences (1 Cor. 15:1-58), and worship irregularities (1 Cor. 11:2-34).

Naturally, these controversies divided the membership. But they also separated the leader from the congregation in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians Paul writes of both his personal pain and his estrangement from the church (2 Cor. 2:1-4).

In his effort to quell the conflict and reunite the congregation, Paul used various theological and ethical arguments. Most pastors would do as much. But Paul used four other techniques that we also can use to protect our congregations from the fragmenting influences of the fringe movements.

1. We can project a spiritual image.

"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 11:1; 2:2).

One charge that fringe publications level at church leadership—pastors and administrators—is that they are not spiritual. My experience indicates that above all else, our members want spiritual leadership. Pastors who know and are known by God, who pray for and with their people, who speak with conviction about the love of God, who are able to say "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ"—these are the pastors who will be successful at countering the influence of the fringe movements.

But we must not only be spiritual; we must project a spiritual image to our congregations. How can we do this?

We must communicate some elements of our spiritual journeys. Tom, a young pastor on the Oregon coast, walked the beach discouraged. The serious situation that had recently developed in his district so occupied his thoughts that he barely noticed the winter storm that raged around him. When he reached the rocky headland that marked the end of the beach, he stopped and watched the enormous waves thunder against it. The waves seemed overwhelming, as did the problems he was facing.

After a moment Tom turned, intending to make his way back to his car. But on an impulse he climbed the headland instead. When he reached the top, he noticed that the roar of the surf had diminished. In fact, the surf itself did not seem so formidable. The height to which he had climbed gave him a new perspective on the surf and the storm. It also gave him a new perspective on his problems. Kneeling on the rain-soaked earth, he thanked the Lord for the refreshing insight. The renewal he felt strengthened him as he returned to face his work.

The next Sabbath Tom began his sermon by relating this experience. In doing so, he offered his congregation an insight into his walk with the Lord.

We must project a spiritual image in our prayers. George was the seasoned pastor of a large city congregation. I knew him to be a saintly man concerned for the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But he had the annoying habit of praying "Xeroxed" prayers he repeated such lines as "bless our hearts," "mold us," and "beds of sickness" every week. As laud able as these sentiments are, how much more effective would his spiritual witness have been if he had sought new, meaningful ways of expressing them?

We must preach spiritual sermons. A congregation has its best opportunity to see the character of its pastor in his or her preaching. Our messages reveal a great deal about our spiritual lives.

Sermons drawn from the Word of God, flowing with the sweetness of Jesus' love, punctuated with the power of the Spirit, unfolding truth simply to road-weary Christians, testify clearly of our spirituality.

2. We can construct spiritual events.

In 1 Corinthians Paul mentioned church meetings a number of times (1 Cor. 5:4, 5; 11:17-33; 14:23-28,33,34), but his counsel as to how to handle a case of church discipline perhaps best witnesses to his predisposition to make meetings into spiritual events. For the man living with his father's wife, Paul instructed an assembly of the church to "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5).

For Paul even a case of church discipline had momentous spiritual implications. It was a collective-redemptive event; the final attempt of caring Christians to retrieve a wayward soul.

Is it too much to try to make every meeting of the church a spiritual event? It is easy to see how worship services, prayer meetings, Sabbath schools, and funerals can serve spiritual ends, but how about board meetings, business meetings, and committee meetings ? Certainly the Lord is actively leading His work. Since this is so, we can point it out. Even the mundane business meeting provides the opportunity for the aware pastor to declare the Lord's care for the church and its business.

In addition to the regular meetings of the church, we can construct other spiritual events. We might structure a Communion service for young marrieds, develop a Week of Prayer especially for the elderly, or start prayer groups, study groups, or work groups of various kinds.

The list is endless, but the key is to enliven and feed the membership. Spiritually satisfied and growing members are less vulnerable to the negative messages that abound.

3. We can project an image of loyalty to church leadership.

Today there are many who are propagating disloyalty. Various groups secure church membership lists and spread the disease through their publications. And like cancer, when disloyalty invades a congregation, it grows until it destroys the church's vitality.

Ralph, a district pastor in a fanning community, nurtures a resentment. During his internship days his conference president transferred him from one district to another against his will. Though the president moved shortly afterward and has since retired, Ralph is still angry. In subtle ways his unresolved feelings now surface as distrust of the organization and its leadership.

Unfortunately, some in Ralph's congregation are picking up his signals and are vocalizing their feelings. Though Ralph is uncomfortable with the hostility he has been hearing recently, his lack of confidence in the church's leadership makes him hesitant to defend them.

Ralph should realize that one word of disloyalty from the pastor can neutralize a thousand positive words. The damage that has been done in his church not only will take some time to repair, but also provides fertile soil for the messengers of discontent.

Paul, on the other hand, encouraged loyalty to the leadership of the church. He refused to demean the work of Apollos ("I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth" [1 Cor. 3:6]), he collected money to support church relief (1 Cor. 16:1-3), and he counseled the Corinthians "to be subject... to every fellow worker and laborer" (verse 16).

As pastors, we have many opportunities to communicate to our congregations our loyalty to the leadership of the church. Among other ways, we may do so by mentioning conference goals—Harvest 90, the academy development program, and so forth—frequently from the pulpit, by praising the work of some conference official, and by inviting conference personnel as guest speakers.

4. We can develop a tolerance for diversity.

Diversity—whether cultural, racial, ethical, or theological—is a characteristic of life. In fact, it is embedded in creation itself, spoken into existence by God and blessed by Him.4 But experiencing differences can be painful. The failure to see eye to eye can alienate people from each other and disrupt the workings of an organization. 5

Yet such traumas need not occur. And diversity has its positive elements as well. In his book Managing Change in the Church, Douglas Johnson says that diversity both permits the surfacing of ideas that can spark new ways of acting and encourages the development of good and sensitive leaders. 6

By comparing the church to the human body, Paul highlighted its diverse nature. Just as the parts of the body differ, so the church is composed of members having many different gifts. The fact that it is the Holy Spirit who bestows these gifts indicates that God Himself has ordained diversity in the church. 7

And remember, the church to which Paul wrote affirming diversity was one that was deeply divided by its differences. I confess that under such circumstances my own inclination is to preach on unity. But a focus on unity may have the opposite effect; in their attempts to heed the call to unity, members may shun the dis affected person. The member thus frozen out of church life will either become more vocal in order to be heard or will drop out entirely. Neither alternative is acceptable.

Jeff was laughed down the last time he tried to get his usual oddball point across at a church business meeting. When the meeting concluded, no one attempted to sooth his feelings. Defeated and hurt, he decided to try a new tactic. As often as his finances permitted, he wrote scathing rebukes and mailed copies to every member of the church, including the newly baptized. Thus he began his own independent publication.

People like Jeff could be kept active in the church if only congregations knew how to react to their uniqueness. How we lead as pastors can determine how accepting our congregations are of people's differences. To help our congregations learn to be more accepting, we can:

Celebrate differences. We can help our people see the positive impact that differences have on congregational life by pointing out how someone used a unique gift or talent to help some member or to win someone to the church. These celebration events are appropriate for any service of the church, but are particularly appropriate during the worship service.

Preach differences. Scripture is filled with material suitable for this theme. For example, 1 Corinthians 12 (spiritual gifts), Genesis 1 (Creation), Revelation 4 (the four living creatures and the 24 elders—differences represented at the throne of God), Acts 15:36-41 (disagreement between Paul and Barnabas), Mat thew 4:18-22 (menders and casters differences between Peter and John), etc.

Set the example. We can demonstrate by example a capacity to include people with differing opinions. For instance, during board meetings, business meetings, and other committee meetings, we can seek the opinion of all those present—even those who usually do not speak up. When we consider each comment, thanking each participant, our members will soon learn that their ideas count. When they have a healthy view of their own opinions, they will be more accepting of the opinions of others.

Structure visual events. Perhaps an ex ample will best illustrate what I'm thinking of. A few years ago my church held a banner day. We encouraged each family in the church to design and make a banner that illustrated the theme "The Caring Church Is . . ." On the appointed Sabbath each family brought their banner to the front of the church, unrolled it, and explained its meaning. By the time the service concluded, the congregation was surrounded by colorful banners. Each was creative, distinctive, and appropriate to the theme. We left them hanging in the church for several Sabbaths as a graphic reminder that for one Sabbath differences were knitted together into a vitalized worship event.

Dealing with the negative independent publications and the people they influence will certainly continue to challenge us. But pastors can make a difference by how they lead. Instead of allowing the diversity in our churches to either immobilize us or make us inflexible, we can learn to regard it as normal, healthy, and even desirable. By building in our churches a tolerance for differences, we can create a climate that encourages spiritual growth.

Remember, even the volatile Corinthian church did an admirable work for the Lord.

1. Speed Leas lists 27 symptoms that result from unresolved conflict. Among them are "painful pressure on the minister, evidenced by increased use of the theme of reconciliation in sermons, prayers, and hymns"; "desperate 'circuit-riding' calling by the minister, attempting to hold everything together"; "minister developing a sense of personal failure"; and "job-hunting by the minister" (Speed B. Leas and Paul L. Kittlaus, Church Fights [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973], pp. 16, 17).

2. John Savage sees pledges and donations as indications of a member's commitment. A dropout will reinvest both his time and money in a new project, representing his new commitment. See Savage's Skills for Calling and Caring Ministries (Pittsford, N.Y.: LEAD Consultants, 1979), p. 6.

3. All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

4. Jan O. Johnson, "A Design for Learning and Developing Skills for Handling Interpersonal and Substantive Conflict" (D.Min. diss., Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich., 1986), pp. 34-37.

5. Leas, p. 16.

6. Douglas W. Johnson, Managing Change in the Church (New York: Friendship Press, 1974), pp. 11-13.

7. See 1 Corinthians 12.


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Jan G. Johnson pastors the Seventh-day Adventist church in Granger, Washington—which is not the scene of the battle he describes in this article.

November 1990

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