|Book: Creating a Secure Church: BOOK TWO|
Part 1 : Objectives & Obstacles
Part 2 : Secure in Relationships
Part 3 : Secure in Ministry
Part 4 : When Things go Wrong
Part 5 : Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 15: Disagreeing Gracefully
“They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company”
(Acts 15:39 )
If there is one thing we are bad at doing in the Christian world it is disagreeing gracefully! We're all prone to it and Paul and Barnabus were no exception!
15.1 The Apostolic Example
What was at the heart of this sharp disagreement? Well back on their first missionary journey John Mark had gone along but had then given up and left them. It had obviously been too much for him. Now Barnabus was an encourager (and that's what his name means) and he obviously wanted to give John Mark another chance.
Barnabus is a people-person but Paul is a project-person. Paul has the vision of what needs to be done (to go back and strengthen the churches they had helped raise up) and he won't let anyone threaten that vision. For Barnabus people come first, but for Paul the apostolic calling was so serious that nothing should be allowed to jeopardise it.
Many commentators, looking for the best in this situation, say that at least God was now able to bring two apostolic teams into being instead of one. But that is really an excuse isn't it, for God could have put it into their minds to multiply without disagreement. No, this is an unfortunate example of the humanity of these two men coming through - badly.
They could have quite amicably agreed to go different ways but Luke, the writer, shows it as a sharp disagreement. What does that say? It says that these two men had such fixed ideas that they allowed them to override the grace within them so that they parted, with upset!
15.2 Reasons for a Crisis Disagreement
That's what we have in this example, a crisis disagreement, which is one where the feelings run so strong that grace is pushed out. Why do we get into such situations? I would suggest the following as perhaps some of the reasons, and you may be able to think of others:
1. Fossilised ideas
This simply means that we have allowed our ideas to be set down and cast in stone, and nothing will change them! Now there are some things that are worth dying for, the truth of the Gospel for one. Many of the earliest Christian martyrs died because they refused to deny the truths of their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
In the last part of the twentieth century ideas became the basis for a cause and a cause became a reason to fight. In a world where relativism reigns and absolutes have been rejected, fighting for a cause has become a new source of identity, whether it is animal right's activists, Irish republicans or loyalists, or Arab terrorists fighting for a religion or a land. Human life has become expendable as the end has become the justification for the means.
But within the church we seem to be the same sometimes. We get set in our particular viewpoint and the enemy plays on our lack of grace and all other views become the enemy. A little while back, the Lord challenged my mental abilities by allowing me an opportunity to travel to the States, and stay with a delightful pastor on the outskirts of Los Angeles .
This man of God questioned me on a number of my beliefs. For instance he challenged me on the practice of the gift of prophecy. I believe the ‘discussion' between the two of us lasted six hours non stop, challenge and counter challenge. On that visit we had three or four of these marathon doctrinal challenges. He is a theologian, I am not. I came back from that trip (and yes I did do some ministry as well as argue theology!) honed up. It made me question and sharpen up my own beliefs, and it made me question and sharpen up my questioning of things that sometimes go on in the Christian circus.
As I wondered about doing similar things with my own leaders, I realised that you have to be quite secure in yourself to enter into this sort of debate. My American friend and I dialogued for all those hours without an ounce of rancour. However when I'm at home and I watch and listen to people involved in an interactive Bible Study, I realise that many of us feel highly threatened if an alternative view is expressed to the one we've just uttered.
What I instigated with a very small group for a couple of years, was a ‘think tank' where four of us put a morning aside once a fortnight, we chose a topic and then discussed it in detail for at least a couple of hours. Our thinking was challenged and our ideas brought into clear focus and, I believe, a respect has grown between us as “ one man sharpens another ” (Prov 27:17). This sort of approach not only stirs our thinking, it also creates a security in the awareness of our love and respect for one another.
A Personal Strategy to avoid over-rigid thinking : Listen to others, consider their viewpoints, consider the possibilities of their being right. Read books to understand the viewpoints of those who differ from mine.
I know for myself the greatest time of danger is when I'm tired. Over-activity brings stress which brings tiredness, and in the midst of tiredness comes loss of perspective. Suddenly things become too important. We need to deal with this issue now! This minute! This is a critical issue! There is an enemy to be confronted! These people are wrong!
For me, my particular temptation was to immediately commit something to paper, only to find that that wasn't the best means of communication when I'm tired. At such times we need to lay down the work, go into a corner and rest and pray, wait, consult others and then decide coolly and rationally what needs to be said or done. The trouble with tiredness is that so often we don't realise the effect it is having on us. Quite often we're not the best people to diagnose ourselves.
Just recently a good friend rang me up and asked, “Are you all right?” I thought and genuinely responded, “Yes fine, to the best of my knowledge.” A couple of days later over coffee he said, “You know, I had a vision of you the other day, a really clear, genuine vision of you in great anguish.” Something in my mind clicked… ah, yes, well….. and the truth came out.
I had been so busy that I hadn't been taking any notice what had been going on inside me. These are vulnerable times, times when we loose perspective and become argumentative! We need to learn to recognise the state we're in and know when blood sugar levels are low!
There are times when anyone can come up to me and say anything and I can handle it. There are other times when I simply feel fragile! In those latter times my grace level seems very low. Don't tell me I'm not drawing on the Lord, I am, it's just that physically I'm at a real low, and if I'm struggling to cope just staying upright, I may not be too good at producing a graceful answer.
I'm learning to say, “I'm ever so sorry, but I'm a bit washed out at the moment. Do you mind if I come back to you when I'm feeling a bit more on top so you can get the best from me.” I want to be graceful at all times but if I'm having trouble being that, the best I can do is quietly retreat into a corner and recover physically and spiritually, and then come back and be a blessing to people. Too often in the past, I know that I've struggled to be everything to everyone when really I need to be out of the ring and recuperating.
A Personal Strategy to avoid this : Find someone in the church that I can trust (preferably husband, wife, close friend, leader) to whom I give permission to tell me when they see signs of over tiredness that may be making me appear jaded.
3. Personal Insecurity
Fear is a great motivating force for an argument, and fear is often there because we feel insecure. Insecure people cannot risk the challenge of alternative points of view. Insecure people often take refuge in fossilised ideas which can be trotted out from time to time rather like tidal defence barriers to stop the incoming tide of heresy (as we see it).
Insecure people have to be right, have to have the last say, are unable to disagree gracefully. Insecure people are fearful when something new is suggested and are unable to weigh in the balances the truth of what is being proposed. Insecure people have a knee jerk reaction rather than a reasoned response. Insecure people feel they have to bring doctrinal balance in prayer when someone has just prayed enthusiastically in a rather one-sided way.
Personal insecurity shows itself in this context in a number of ways. Some time back a man I know rang me and started the conversation with, “I just want to cross swords with you over the subject of…” and he named a particular doctrinal viewpoint. My reaction at this point is to reply, “Well my own feelings about this subject are….” and I tell what I believe, and then I continue, “but I'm not interested in crossing swords with you over it. If you disagree, I respect your view and I don't particularly want you to come round to my view point. If you have genuine questions over either viewpoints I'm quite happy to discuss the merits of both sides, but I'm not interested in crossing swords with you.”
What am I saying? I'm saying I don't want to be involved in doctrinal confrontation. Insecure people are often argumentative. I would prefer to help them into a place of security, but it doesn't come through argument! I'll say some more on this subject of doctrinal disagreement later.
A Personal Strategy to avoid this : Go back through Book One and ask God to transform me and help me not be someone on the defensive.
4. Legalistic Reasoning
This is really a tool of insecure people. Insecure people work by rules and by logic because this helps them feel in control and if they feel out of control they feel insecure (it's a nice circular argument!). Yet for a number of situations, we find rules, reason and logic cannot get us to the answer. As we'll see in a moment or two, there are some situations where disagreement can almost be guaranteed and logic won't solve it.
I know that I'm supposed to be covering causes of why people get into crisis disagreements, but I think it's worth saying here that once you get into a crisis disagreement, legalistic reasoning will not get you out. When we're in such a situation the combatants actually don't want to reason logically to the truth, they want people to hear why they're hurting so much, they want their feelings to come out. I'll pick up on this subject in a later chapter, but for the time being, if you have hurting people, don't expect cool calm logic to be the answer for them!
A Personal Strategy to avoid this : Put a sign on the wall of my study/bedroom/kitchen - “Listen to people's feelings, not their verbal reasons. Understand why they feel as they do - and love them”
5. Emotional Ignorance
This sounds nasty. I simply mean that there are situations where we only know half the story (we're partly ignorant) and our emotions have been played upon by the anguish of one side. It's very easy to get swept up emotionally in today's age of media manipulation where ‘image' is all important. Western political theory at the beginning of the twenty first century seems to rely upon emotional manipulation, hence the emergence of so-called ‘spin doctors' whose function is to release information in such a way as to portray the party in the most favourable light, to turn our emotions towards them. TV soaps and dramas are incredibly good at hitting our emotions, often completely bypassing truth!
You can see or hear this sort of thing in the church prayer meeting sometimes. Depending where you are in the country, a particular political party, member of the royal family or other well known figure will be portrayed as a saint or sinner - depending on the view of the prayer leader and the people. Truth may often be far away. Praying for the nation and for national leaders can be a tricky thing, where only informed background, combined with the revelation of God how to pray, will give us the hope that we may be avoiding partisan bias and actually agreeing in prayer with how God feels!
A Personal Strategy to avoid this : Put a notice on the wall of my study/bedroom/kitchen - Don't get swept up emotionally by only one side of the argument!”
15.3 The Fact of Disagreement in Life
The above things are merely examples of things that cause us to be stirred up in such a way that we refuse to listen to or accept an alternative view. I said above, there will be times when there can almost be a guaranteed disagreement. Life isn't always neat and orderly, there are often situations where someone has to give way.
The classic story of Robin Hood meeting Little John on a log crossing a stream means someone has to give way, they both can't cross at the same time. When they try to they both end up in the stream! This happens at very practical levels and at what might be called spiritual levels. There WILL be disagreement. What matters most as Christians is how we handle it .
A Practical Example.
The church is growing, the building is getting too small. It is suggested that a building extension project ought to be got under way. Suddenly the options are wide open and the potential for unhappy disagreement suddenly escalates. To build or not to build? If we build, how should we build? How much are we willing to commit to it? If we don't build, should we look for alternative premises or should we think about multiple Sunday Meetings or even planting out a further congregation?
When such an ‘alternative options' situation arises, what is your attitude, what are the feelings that arise in you? Is turning to God for wisdom and revelation your instinctive response? Perhaps the easiest way to diagnose it is to say, what is the feeling generated within you when such a situation arises, or even when you think of such a situation? Do you think, “OK just another situation to work through”, or do you start to have a feeling of dread at the conflict you know is likely to arise.
I still have memories of my earliest years as a Christian, being in a large denominational church and attending church meetings both in the presence of the Minister and during an interregnum when they were waiting for a new Minister. Both experiences were shocking for me as a new Christian, for they both involved loud and very vocal disagreement, unhappy disagreement, unholy disagreement!
In our present church we have had a monthly meeting called ‘News & Views' which was an opportunity for the leaders to share where they feel God is taking us and for the people to share on what they feel about it, ask questions and voice alternative suggestions. A little while back we had a particularly contentious subject arise, which touched on tender memories that various people had from their previous church experiences. Again the tendency was for very vocal, emotional views to be expressed in disagreement.
In that time I had cause to say:
As I've watched, listened and read over the years, I've been amazed by the ungracious way that sometimes we express disagreement over spiritual matters. In 1956 Francis Schaeffer wrote in a letter: “The Lord has been speaking to me during my prayer times in the quietness of the Alps that it is as important to show forth the love of God as to show forth the holiness of God. And that this surely means that personal attacks (whether against “leading brothers,” against little-known brethren in the Lord, or against unbelievers) were completely ruinous spiritually to the Christians who employed or who condoned such personal attack ” (The Letters of Francis Schaeffer p.67). What he said then still holds true today. When we feel we have to speak out for truth and holiness, if we do it without the love of God we undermine our whole position.
When it comes to doctrine and practice we will find great varieties of understanding. The fact that there are Calvinist versus Armenian arguments indicates that great men of God can differ in their understanding of the great issues of Scripture. The fact that there is a debate over “Once saved Always Saved” indicates that great men of God can differ in their understanding of Scripture. The fact that there are differing ‘millennial schools' indicate the same thing.
In each of these cases we are purely speaking about interpretation of Scripture, and the fact that it needs interpreting means that it is likely that we're not always going to get it right. This shouldn't stop us trying. The variety of Creeds and Councils through history, that have sought to clarify doctrine, should remind us of this. We do need the grace to accept that as strongly as I may feel about a particular doctrine, I may not have it quite right, and while I may not have it quite right, have I the grace to love and accept others who may or may not have it all quite right?
Then there are the defenders of truth. On one extreme of the church are those who some might label ‘Liberals' who some say believe little of the Bible or even about the inspiration of the Bible. On the other extreme are those who not only see the Bible as the inspired word of God but also see themselves as the upholders of that truth against all comers. They see themselves in a war situation (which of course it is) but they take on a defensive stance which is both hard and harsh in its opposition to all that appears to vary from their perceived position.
Being in a war has become an excuse for ungraciousness and therefore ungodliness, but it is just an excuse, a bad excuse. Then there are those who espouse the cause of Protestantism against Catholicism, and again harshness and hardness so often creep in where they should not be. We may object to standpoints, points of view, doctrines that we consider less than Scriptural (and should not be afraid to voice them at the appropriate times) but that should not stop us loving the individuals we encounter and treating them gracefully and respectfully, whether they come from a sect, a mainline denomination or a new stream.
In a day when religious extremism is seen across the earth in many forms we, surely, should take the extreme position of being the most loving, graceful and godly community on the face of the earth. Our doctrine is vitally important but if we fail to show the love and grace of Jesus Christ, we simply put ourselves on the same level as all other religious adherents. Because of the nature of these things, it means there will be disagreement and we must learn to say graciously, “Well I still can't see it like that but I love and respect you and will agree to disagree until the Lord is able to bring our understanding together.”
Disagreement of Practice
So far above we've spoken of doctrine, and we hope that there are central core doctrines over which we will not disagree, but there is also in church experience the whole question of practice, the differing ways we go about church life. This can be in respect of having a minister, elder or team, or how church government is run, or how we conduct ‘services'.
Most of the times, we go our different ways for either historical reasons or because we understand Scripture differently. Unfortunately we use these things sometimes as reasons for division and separation. Can we learn to say, “Well I see it differently and I prefer the way we go about it, but we love and respect you in the way you do it” and not let it be a cause of separation.
The Real Nature of Disagreement
These are areas where we can almost guarantee that at some time there will be disagreement by the very nature of things, simply because things are not always clear cut but are, in fact, open to interpretation or different assessment. The lessons to learn here are how to disagree gracefully and without division. Yet at times we must accept that staying in unity is difficult. There are areas where it is awkward.
Here are two churches in town. One believes the Gospel and faithfully teaches Scripture. The other believes little and preaches social behaviour. From our standpoint can the faithful preacher help the unbelieving preacher? In theory yes, but in reality this means friendship, dialogue and willingness to talk - and time - and faith to believe change can come. Sometimes in the pressures of ministry life those last two ingredients are in scarce supply. Can the two churches work together? For the Gospel the reality is probably no, but over social good deeds the answer can be yes. But even in this area we have to be very careful. God has a habit of turning up and working in areas we least expect!
15.4 The Tragedy and Reality of Division
I live in an area of Britain where historically church division has been rife, one group springing out of another group. Yet this isn't uncommon, for the whole history of denominationalism has this at its heart. When we look at church history we see that divisions took place mainly because:
one group disagreed with the doctrine and practice of another group,
one group found new life that contrasted with the death of the old,
the new group formalised itself and became a separate grouping.
My own belief is that if, once we became Christians, we were made perfect in daily practice, then in any one geographical location there would ever only be one church, the local church of whatever town or village or area you live in. Yet because that is not so, we have divisive multiplicity which comes about for the three reasons I've given above.
Yet Jesus knew that would happen when he brought the church into being, this was no surprise to him. So he perseveres with us and perhaps even uses the divisions to thwart the enemy. In a divided church, if one part goes astray other parts can hold to the truth. In a divided church it is more difficult for the enemy to control it through secular authorities. But all of this doesn't mean that division and disagreement are good!
John Wimber said that he appreciated liturgical churches because they gave him freedom not to be. If others weren't upholding and preserving the church calendar, he would have to do it, but as others were doing that, he was free not to. That's a nice outlook. Secure leaders don't mind that others are different and indeed appreciate the differences (now we've got them!). It seems that God takes the differences and uses them. Differences may not be ideal but perhaps it is as Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving on many lives.” (Gen 50:20)
Seeds of Division
Why are we even considering this in this book? Simply because in a secure church we want to avoid the potential of division if that is at all possible. How does division come about? I would suggest that the following are likely conditions:
Some people in the church feel unhappy either about what is being taught,
about the practice of the church or about the apparent absence of life in
There is no room or structure in the church for expression of concern, so
they murmur among themselves.
Dissension grows and frustration boils over in them, with them violently
voicing their sense of grievance and then leaving and going somewhere
What was the primary cause of this separation? Lack of communication! The people in question may have a wrong heart, wrong spirit or wrong whatever else but for some reason in this church there was no means in which that could be faced long before it blew out of all proportion into a major conflict.
If we are realistic there are going to be people who, despite all your efforts, do not want to live in the truth and do not want to change, and get fed up with their situation. There will be people who will leave despite everything you do. Yet the point of this discussion is to avoid that happening where it is possible to do so. One of the sad things about people leaving with a grievance is that if they leave and set up another church, they take their wrong attitudes into that new church and until repentance comes, the foundation of that new church will always be undermined.
I'm afraid that this is an area that is easier to speak about in theory than it is in practice. It is a messy area and even if a couple disappear over the horizon in high dudgeon, it is likely that they will go spreading tales of how awful you are. if the people in question are leaders it gets even worse. If you confront, will they clear off in upset and leave a grieving church behind them? The truth is that in the warfare of Church life, the enemy does pick up on things and cause havoc.
Having pondered the pain of this at least twice in experience, I am left wondering if the Lord allows these things to blow up because we tolerated wrong attitudes and did nothing about them. In His wisdom He simply allows time to pass and then the blow-up occurs and it is always worse than if you had confronted the individual or couple or whoever long beforehand.
Sadly, with the plethora of local churches, if an individual or couple or whoever are confronted with wrong attitudes, they simply leave and set up comfortably in another church that is happy to have new people and prefers not to check out how they have come. I believe the truth is, that if we had eyes to see, we would look back over the Christian landscape and see dozens if not hundreds of unresolved situations, in this realm, from the past that left spiritual vulnerability and a hindrance to present fruitfulness. One of the biggest deceptions that we can live with is that "It will be all right." It may appear that way but in the long term it never is. To reiterate what I just said, I am convinced it leaves the church with spiritual vulnerability and a hindrance to present fruitfulness.
The thrust of this chapter has been to highlight the problem of disagreement that will arise whenever there are two sinful human beings, even if they are Christians. The point I have wanted to make again and again is that the most important thing is how we disagree. There are always those somewhere who seek to excuse their harsh attitudes by referring to Jesus' actions clearing out the temple. If we want to do this then we also need to remember the incidents either side of that incident.
Before it we find Jesus looking down on Jerusalem and weeping over it. If we dare speak a word in righteous anger, can we first ensure that our hearts have been so moved by compassion that we have wept for those to whom we come.
Following that incident Jesus gave his life to save even some of those people in Jerusalem , possibly even some who had opposed him (Saul/Paul being a good example). If we dare to say we are moved with righteous anger we also need to know that we will give our very lives to save the very people who oppose us, if that be possible.
Only when we weep for the people, only when we are prepared to die for the people, may we perhaps consider we are called to speak by God against the practices of the people.
15.5 And So?
The questions that follow help us focus on our own situations, our own church:
Are we able to identify how we become vulnerable to getting emotionally swept up into severe disagreements by
fossilised ideas preventing us seeing alternatives?
tiredness creeping in through over busyness?
my own personal insecurity that brings in fear?
relying on logical legalistic reasoning in emotion-heavy circumstances
instead of facing the emotion?
becoming emotionally biased?
Have we intellectual, spiritual and practical strategies in place to overcome each of these where possible?
Have I allowed myself to get into a position of a bad disagreement because of failing to identify
Have I been guilt of hastily moving in a situation of concern in my church over teaching/practice that has worried me, or the absence of life that has worried me without seeking a godly solution to it?
Have I been guilty of thinking or speaking harshly about those with whom I disagree to cause grief to the Holy Spirit?
Are there communication structures/strategies in place in my church that enable people to express their concerns or views or revelations? If not, what can I do in a godly, gentle manner to rectify that?
Can I determine, by God's grace not to
Will I, instead, look for and work for their good. Especially if they fall, will I seek to restore them, to pick them up and do all I can to bring them back into a good place with me and with the rest of the church?
If we can resolve these difficulties, we'll have gone a long way towards forming a secure church.