I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Phil 4:2
We are in a day when society is rife with conflict and the Church should be at the forefront of creating greater peace and understanding. And yet the most significant conflicts right now, about social distancing, wearing masks, and limits on gatherings, are happening as much inside churches as they are outside churches.
When congregations are divided for any reason, pastors are put in a very awkward position. No matter what their position on the issues, they will be in conflict with one part or another of their congregation, with the consequence they may be alienating some of the very people they want to pastor. The purpose of this post is to help pastors hold their congregations together in spite of its members having disagreements with each other and even with the pastor.
Pastors, the pandemic-related restrictions have made this problem particularly acute. Your entire congregation is watching right now to see how you lead through the pandemic, and they are forming judgements about your leadership. Some congregants will approve and some will disapprove as they ask the following questions:
- What are you prioritizing?
- What values are on display?
- Whose interests are uppermost in your mind?
- Are you burning bridges with people?
- Do you demonstrate that you care for all the members of your congregation?
The pandemic will be over at some point and then life will continue. But we cannot assume our relationships will pick up where they were before the pandemic. How we experience one another during the pandemic will determine what our relationships will be like when it is over.
To prepare for church life after the pandemic, pastors must act now to establish and maintain peace and unity within their congregations.
Preparations for Peace
The first step for pastors is to take stock of themselves and be sure they have the moral authority and social capital to lead a peacemaking process (that is, that they themselves are not contributing to the division). I highly recommend that pastors do A Self-Checkup for Ministry Leaders to ensure they are an attractive, godly leader whom all sides can accept as the one to lead a peace initiative.
Likewise, the first step for members of the congregation is to examine themselves by asking: “Am I contributing to division within the church and, whether I’m at the forefront of the debate or watching from the sidelines, am I acting in a way that reflects Christ’s ability to bring peace?” Pastors, a sermon or teaching on this topic would be very helpful.
Four Principles for Peace in Churches
Here are four principles to help churches work through difficult issues and find godly solutions.
You may have conflict resolution ideas beyond what I’ve included in this post. If you want, you can share your thoughts in the comments below or, if you are a CCCC member, you can go to The Green and contribute your answer as part of a discussion about this post.
If you would like to talk about pandemic-related restrictions and how to respond, ministry people who are registered with The Green can discuss it here.
1. Keep Christ front and centre
Churches are not just another social organization. They are part of the new creation. The way we work and live together within congregational life should be an attractive witness to the public of the way of life when following Jesus.
A Model for Church Discussions
On the first night of my first MDiv course, Dr. Andrew Lau pointed out that the twelve students were from twelve different denominations and Dr. Lau wanted to avoid any conflicts in our class discussions. He gave us the following model, which I have found extremely helpful and have shared many times:
There are three concentric circles that represent a local church. The inner circle is Christ. The next circle represents denominational distinctives (which he saw as gifts to the larger body of Christ). The outer circle represents personal preferences (including personal beliefs). As long as the circles stay in that order, everything will be fine. But if we move a denominational distinctive to the centre and insist that it represents the core of the church, then Christ has been pushed out of his place. Similarly, if a personal preference is placed at the centre, then Christ has been pushed aside. Any church that does not have Christ at its centre is bound to be less faithful to Christ.
As I’ve read and heard about various church conflicts, I’ve realized that while people often look to the Bible to support their positions, they usually screen and interpret the Bible through the lens of their personal preference. In other words, they aren’t letting the Bible speak for itself. Just because someone refers to the Bible doesn’t mean that Christ is at the centre of their thinking. When your starting point for understanding Christ and Scripture is to use your personal lens as your filter, then Christ is not at the centre; your personal preference is.
When Christ is at the centre we don’t prooftext. We do the hard work of understanding verses and books in their context. We glean the nuances by contextual analysis and placing the passage within the larger biblical-theological understanding of God and his mission. It’s all about what, out of all the many things that the Bible commands, is most important to God. I’m reminded of Hosea 6:6 – “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” God is saying this in spite of all the very clear commands in the Old Testament about the many kinds of sacrifices that must be offered and how they should be done. Every word in Scripture is there for a reason and therefore is important, and we need to be discerning in how they all fit together.
Outside the local church, Christians may legitimately take part in public life and debate politics, the economy, social justice, and any other issue we wish to discuss as long as we are kind and gracious in our disagreements.
Surprisingly, in spite of all the hatred and vitriol that was part of the 2020 U.S. elections, we did see a wonderful example of how disagreements can still be civil. The Democratic and Republican candidates for the governorship of Utah filmed a series of joint advertisements promoting civility, common values, and mutual respect. They agreed that there are important social values that transcend their differences.
The same should be true inside local churches. We must remember that Christ and our faith are fundamental to everything. Nothing can take precedence over them, so we must not allow polarization or outrage to have any place in our churches. Pastors should cultivate within their congregations a willingness to search for a solution to which everyone can say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
Pastors can lead by helping people understand why the two sides see things differently and by giving them a solid biblical-theological foundation from which to develop a position without using any other ideology as a starting point. Churches will always be taking positions on matters of faith that have been politicized in public life, but political ideology should have nothing to do with how the church develops its positions.
And although we may never have everyone in agreement on everything, we should be able to stay in relationships while holding different opinions. That’s a worthy goal to strive for.
As long as Christ is at the centre of our churches, we will do well.
Questions to ask are:
- Have we spent time together discerning what the Holy Spirit has to say?
- Is this discussion disrupting our life together based on love and unity? Are we making every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19)?
- Do our discussions reflect respect for church leadership, the people who disagree with us, and the selfless character of Christ? Do not vilify the “other!”
- What is the root cause of the division, deep down? Is it values? Priorities?
- Which theological understandings apply to this topic?
- Do we have any blind assumptions on this matter? Ask someone who thinks differently on the matter.
- What effect is this having on our pastor and church leadership?
The questions in this post have been compiled into a single downloadable document that you can use to facilitate discussion with your team:
2. Maintain your ability to fulfill your mission
Satan must be delighted when a church gets distracted from its mission. At all times, your church needs a “mission-first” mindset. It must always focus on being the kind of church that can fulfill its mission. I’ve written a post on rediscovering and exploring your mission that will bring your mission alive in a whole new way. Staff and volunteers will gain new energy and focus as they gain a fresh perspective on why your ministry exists. It certainly did for me and CCCC!
Pastors need to impress upon the congregation the importance of the church’s mission and unite the congregation behind a common cause. If all your church’s energy is going into battle over personal preferences in the outer ring of the church (see above model), you have little energy left over for Christ and his mission, which is the centre of the model’s circle and which is your church’s reason for being. When we focus on the big thing, the main thing, everything else shrinks in comparison. Rather than fighting each other, get the congregation working together on “the main thing.”
Questions to ask are:
- Is this disagreement a distraction that is causing us to squander an opportunity to be the Church and shine?
- Is the way we are discussing this matter consistent with what we tell the public about our church and our faith?
- How will our proposed resolution of the disputed matter advance our mission?
- Might it stifle our growth, creativity, or relevance?
- Could it antagonize the very people we want to evangelize?
- What opportunities are open to us at this time that weren’t before?
3. Be a good witness to Jesus Christ
People are writing about hypocritical churches in this pandemic. They are also writing that Christians are failing the character test by charging us with “self-righteous insensitivity” because we are dismissing the seriousness of death. Reporters notice when we appear self-centred. But they are also noticing when churches demonstrate care and compassion for the public.
As a pastor, you need to have Christ’s empathic concern (the ability to feel in tune with someone’s emotional state and show appropriate compassion) for all members of your congregation, and not just for those you easily understand. This requires work, but you might be surprised at what you discover. For example, it might not be fear motivating someone to wear a mask and keep their distance—perhaps they are just committed to doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus.
Questions to ask are:
- Will our behaviour in this matter help people see us as a caring, other-centred, peaceful community?
- Based on our decision-making process, what would the secular world say is the value proposition of our church to them?
- How can we contribute to reducing extremism? What can we do to reduce extremist positions and build a moderate centre?
4. Give the Spirit room
Jesus Christ founded the Church and his Spirit has been its guide over the millennia. The Spirit’s role is to help the Church adapt to various events and circumstances, including how to get through this pandemic. We must spend time listening to whatever the Spirit wants to say to us.
Another benefit of giving the Spirit room to work is that by allowing the Spirit to lead, we become humble followers, and we can no longer be absolutely certain that our personal preferences and beliefs are the correct ones or that everyone who doesn’t think like we do is wrong. The Spirit will lead and settle the matter for all who are truly willing to follow him. Humble followers will be gracious with people who think differently.
The Spirit is highly creative and can provide options that could bring polarized people together, or at least close enough together to find a consensus. We may be very surprised at the opportunities he sends our way once we surrender our agendas for the Spirit’s.
Questions to ask are:
- Which spiritual practices (such as group discernment) have we overlooked?
- What can we do to be more open-minded and creative? In what new ways can we do ministry? One book that is very helpful in stimulating creativity is A Whack on the Side of the Head.
- What are Christian leaders and theologians saying about this topic?
- Are we aware of what God is doing in and around us?
- Is anything happening in the secular world that we can endorse?
Tools & Techniques to Build Peace
As a starting point, ChristianWeek ran A Call for Unity in the Church that might inspire pastors with a way to begin the peace-making process.
I have several blog posts that can help:
- Redeeming Church Conflict has some tips to help you get to the underlying issues of the division that may not be apparent at first. It encourages pastors to lead the congregation by identifying where the congregation is getting hung up on secular, rather than Christian, values. And it shifts the focus away from what people are preoccupied about to help them see what God is doing through the division.
- Why We See Things Differently explains what the underlying value differences are between left/right, progressive/conservative perspectives. We share two values but those on the right/conservative side have three additional values that are not shared, or at least not given priority over the two shared values by the left/progressive side.
- Christians and the power of the state points out that solving conflict by resorting to power does not lead to lasting peace. In churches, power may reside in leadership, in the church’s major donors, or in the “founding families.” There is a better way.
- Autoimmune disease within the body of Christ includes several helpful links along with my own points about how differences between us can actually make us better.
- A four-part series, Hearing God Speak, may help your church discern what the Spirit is saying.
- “Pastors, where is your congregation?” is all about helping your congregation pull back from focusing on the non-essentials and regain their theological and spiritual vitality. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada adds a third vitality – missional vitality – which it wants its adherents to have in abundance. I quite like that focus.
Carey Nieuwhof has a great post on how to unite people in an angry era.
May the Prince of Peace and the Holy Spirit guide you to a communal life within your congregation that is an excellent witness to the way of life under God’s reign.
Key thought: To prepare for life after the pandemic, you must act now to establish peace and unity within your congregation.