By Joe McKeever
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
There is no problem-solving section of the Bible.
Sorry if that disappoints you.
What we do find across the New Testament are large servings of healthy food of the spiritual kind, instructions on how to serve God and live well and relate to one another in the close confines of the forever family. Imbedded throughout are insights on resolving collisions between the Lord’s children.
Do you mean to say that from the beginning Jesus expected clashes and collisions within His family? That His disciples would be torn apart by jealousies and competitions and divisions?
Not only did He anticipate such conflicts, He observed them firsthand among the twelve. Here are a couple of instances…
–A disciple said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). How modern is that? Our denomination is best; the rest of you are failing God.
Jesus was tolerant of a lot of things, but not this kind of spiritual snobbery.
–”And hearing (that the sons of Zebedee had tried to gain the advantage over the other apostles by asking for the best places in the Kingdom), the ten began to feel indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). The genes of competitiveness have been among us from the beginning. “We shall now give our ranking of the top ten churches in our denomination.” “My church is better than your church.” “We may not be the biggest church in town, but we’re the best.”
Sometimes idealistic Christians want to drop out of church altogether because the congregations they’ve found all have problems of one kind or another. “Whatever happened to New Testament churches?” they ask.
Answer: They’re all around us, doing exactly what the churches of the First Century did–evangelize, preach, give, love, bicker, fight, and divide.
Welcome to the real world.
When it comes to resolving relationship squabbles within the Lord’s family, certain scriptures should always occupy center stage. These three get my vote….
1) Preventing conflict before it starts: The parable of Luke 17:7-10 will cure your egotistical need for attention, recognition, and appreciation before it has a chance to sabotage your relationships.
When you have done everything–get that? EVERYTHING!–the Lord Jesus commanded, then say to yourself, “I have not done anything special. I am only an unworthy servant, just doing my job.” Say it and believe it.
Do not, however, apply this to anyone else. Appreciate your co-workers, give honor to whom it is due. Say this only to yourself, and mean it.
This action is directed toward yourself.
If church members practiced this principle–the embodiment of Ephesians 5:21′s command to “submit to one another in the fear of Christ”–90 percent of church conflicts would never happen.
This attitude of submission and humility will allow a believer to absorb a wrong and walk away from it, rather than retaliate. As Paul told the lawsuit-happy Corinthian church, “Why do you not rather suffer a wrong? Why not just let yourself be cheated?” (I Cor. 6:7)
Imagine for a moment your pastor preaching that from the pulpit next Sunday. (I’m remembering that Steve Brown once wrote a delightful little volume called “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” in which he calls for the end of “doormat Christianity.” Even so, there is a time for believers to absorb the hurt and walk away from a fight.)
Please do not miss this point: The parable is calling for us–you and me–to cure our ego problems before they start.
2) Neutralizing the Opposition once it starts: Luke 6:27-35 instructs us on how to respond to those who try to hurt us. We are to love them, although not in the way we might expect. Jesus specifies four actions which fulfill the command to love our tormentors: Do good works for them, speak good words to them, pray good blessings upon them, and give good gifts to them.
The Luke 17:7-10 parable was directed toward ourselves, but the action of Luke 6:27-35 is directed toward others.
Do good, bless, pray, and give. Anytime someone is mistreating you, retaliate with a bombardment of these four weapons of love.
Do that and the animosity is stopped dead in its tracks. No fire can spread when the fuel is removed.
When the person stirring up strife becomes the target of more and more loving actions–the more he tries to stir up strife, the more we love him–he will eventually get the point and humble himself and repent, or he will stop his destructive behavior out of sheer embarrassment.
Either way, the infection is contained.
This is not all that should be done, of course, when someone begins to stir up dissension inside a congregation. The lay leadership should call on him and ask “What are you doing?” (and listen to the answer), followed by, “We’re asking you to stop it. Now.”
Meanwhile, those being targeted by these destructive acts should be responding with good deeds, blessings, prayers, and gifts, the four most basic acts of love.
Why? What’s the point? By these acts of love toward the offenders, we achieve many things, including erasing our own anger. I’m not sure how that works, only that it does. When I do loving things toward the person doing me wrong, I no longer resent him.
The writer of Hebrews must have had this in mind when he said, “See to it that….no root of bitterness springs up causing trouble and by it many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). When we do acts of love toward congregational troublemakers, bitterness finds no fertile soil with which to take root.
3) Curing the Infection after it takes hold: Acts 6:1-7 shows how the early church faced division head-on. They dealt with it in such a satisfying manner that outsiders, prone to criticizing, were impressed to the point that they wanted in on what they saw. This passage demands a longer treatment in order to highlight the principles at work here.
And, let us note, these actions are directed toward the conflict itself. (The first two principles were directed toward ourselves and the wrongdoers.)
a) Promptness: As soon as the leaders saw the problem, they went into action.
Something inside us wants to say, “Leave it alone and it will go away.” Once in a while, it does. But usually it doesn’t. I’ve held funerals for people who delayed seeing a doctor when troubling signs occurred and paid the ultimate price for their negligence.
“Be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). That is the assignment of every church leader: Guard the unity of the congregation.
b) Proposal: The apostles summoned the congregation and laid out a strategy for resolving the issue. The plan accomplished several goals–
–it allowed the leadership to stay with their priorities of “the word of God” (vs. 2) and “prayer and the ministry of the word” (vs. 4).
–it respected the congregation’s ability to handle this in whatever way it chose.
–it did not abandon the congregation to its own devices–a sure recipe for dissension–but gave direction: “Choose 7 men; men of the highest caliber; put them in charge of this task.”
c)Parameters:The disciples were still the church’s leaders. Do not miss this.
–The disciples’ work was of a more critical nature than passing out groceries (vs. 2,4). The seven would be taking a burden off the apostles. When this little group did their work well, they would meet needs of the congregation, relieve the concerns of the apostles, and enable the spread of the gospel. A church’s support staff should be honored to have the privilege of removing burdens from their ministers so that they might do the work of the gospel.
–The seven chosen were to be godly and mature. (vs. 3) Put immature and carnal men in these places of service and you will create far more problems than you had in the first place. A church makes an eloquent statement about itself by the caliber of leaders it chooses.
–The seven were put in charge of “this task” and only that. They were not given permanent status, apparently, they were not the business managers of the congregation, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that they were supervisors or authorities over the apostles.
–Once the congregation chose them, the seven were brought back to the apostles. “After praying, they laid their hands on them.” (vs. 6) They had to pass muster with the apostles, who then commissioned them.
–The seven were accountable both to the congregation that selected them as well as the apostles who commissioned them. The church which selects officers and lay leaders without making them accountable to the pastors is asking for trouble.
d) Flexibility. The situation demanded a solution for which there was no manual. So, the apostles–we’re not sure what process they followed–came together on a plan and gave it to the church.
Sometimes we conservatives want to make a manual of the Bible. Now, we know about manuals, don’t we? Buy a washing machine or a cell phone or a new car and you are awarded a thick book which tells you all the features of this model and answers most of your questions. Is the Bible a manual for the Christian life?
Yes and no.
It is, in the sense that God has told us in these pages all we need to know for “life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3). We will not be needing a second book, thank you Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, and others. This one suffices quite well.
But it is not a strait jacket, not a set-in-concrete form which fits all occasions. The Word is alive and God-breathed and amazing in how it speaks to all kinds of situations, although not in a dead, harsh way.
I’m of the opinion that if your church requires deacons, you should get some. If it doesn’t need any, then don’t have deacons. If it needs elders, fine. And so with anything else (within reasonable bounds) the leadership may decide the church requires in order to meet a need that has arisen.
e) Peace.They did their work well. And, we note….
–We have no idea what they actually did about the problem. Did they interview widows, ask their wives for their slant on the problem, take a poll? What concrete steps did they take? We have no idea.
The story was never intended to present a historical account of who did what to whom, but to illustrate how the first church dealt with division within their ranks. In so doing, they established an outstanding pattern for future generations of churches..
–The names of the seven, we’re told, are all Greek. If the congregation chose the seven peacemakers from the minority group (the complainers being Greek believers), this speaks volumes about the love and trust in these early believers.
–The seven are not actually called “deacons” here. While we believe this to be the origin of the diaconate within the church, there is no way to prove it.
–Those wishing to situate the deacons as authorities over the ministers have a problem with Scripture. In Ephesians 4:11, the church leaders are “apostles and prophets, evangelists and pastor/teachers.” Nothing is said of deacons. To conclude that we are denigrating the work of these men (and occasionally women) is to miss the point altogether. The church then and now needs the service of faithful members with a heart to work and a willingness to do whatever the task requires without thought of controlling or gaining recognition.
Thank God for faithful servants, in the pulpit and in the pew.
Thank God for pastors who serve well with no demand for titles, honors, and recognition. Likewise, we thank Him for deacons and teachers and custodians and groundskeepers who do their work for the pleasure of the Savior and the edifying of His church.
From time to time, church staff members (that is, “non-pastors”) will complain that the pastor gets all the attention and recognition, the honors and the applause, and how unfair is that. Maybe it is. But according to Luke 17:7-10, no minister at any level–no disciple of the Lord Jesus at all–should resent that others are receiving more appreciation than they. Let us consider ourselves “unworthy servants only doing our duty.”
At the same time we should show appreciation for others who do faithful work. This is a paradox of the kind the Lord is fond of giving: “We win by losing.” “We gain by giving up.” “We live by dying.” And, we humble ourselves while honoring others.
One of the problems of resolving conflicts among the Lord’s people is that nothing stays fixed for long. So, when you have done the steps of Acts 6:1-7 and the Lord’s work goes forward, do not expect to be able to tie a bow on it and put the whole business in the attic.
The enemy is always at work, ever on the prowl on the lookout for your weak points or weak members.
We must always be alert for trouble, always training our congregational leaders to deal with trouble, and never be caught off guard or panic when conflict rears its head.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.