Most of the New Testament was written with a view to dealing with sin and controversy in the church. I have often taken comfort from the fact that the churches planted by the Apostles were fraught with contentions and controversy–it is a reminder that such challenges and controversies are not necessarily on account of poor leadership. We can be sure of one thing–if controversies, unjust complaints and contentions happened in the apostolic churches, they will most certainly happen in our churches. So, what are we to do when controversy strikes? How are pastors to navigate the challenges and trials that make them feel their own insufficiencies as they seek to shepherd God’s people to glory? Here are eight things for pastors to keep in mind while seeking to navigate the trials and controversies that local congregations often face:
1. Take all matters to the Lord in prayer. When the king of Assyria sent a letter to King Hezekiah, threatening to attack and oppress Israel, Hezekiah took the letter and spread it before the Lord–thus symbolizing what it means to bring the challenges and trials that we face to the Lord in prayer:
Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord and said: “O Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib… (2 Kings 19:14-16).
Pastors must call on the Lord and bring controversies and contentions to Him for resolution. A good under-shepherd loves the purity of the church and longs for the peace and unity of its members and pastors alike. It is the great burden of his heart because the Great Shepherd of the church is called the “God of peace” (Rom. 15:33; 16:20; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 5:23 and Heb. 13:20). The God of peace loves to answer the prayers of His ministers for peace in His church. While He may not–and often, does not–grant the petition as quickly as we desire, we are to continue calling on Him to bring controversy and contentions to an end.
2. Bring the Gospel to bear in every situation. Every controversy or trial is a platform for the Gospel. The Apostles modeled this for us throughout the New Testament epistles. The message of Christ crucified was the remedy for the schism and division among party factions in the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-25). When there was a sinful division between two women in the church in Philippi, the Apostle Paul brought forth the deepest truths about the incarnation and the servant-like humility of the Lord Jesus Christ–servant-like humility to the point of death on the cross (see Philippians 4:2 in light of 2:1-11). The solution to the sinful division between these two women in the church would only be cured by them adopting the mind of Christ–a posture of humility and self-emptying that resulted in the good of others. When the Apostle Paul dealt with marriage issues, he did so by teaching those in the church in Ephesus that husbands were to learn how to love their wives by considering the sacrificial death of Jesus and wives were to learn how to respect their husbands from the submission of the church to the Savior (Eph. 5:22-33). When dealing with the controversy between those with strong consciences and those with weak consciences in the church, the Apostle wrote, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). While there are many other examples and cases set out in the epistles in every case, the death and resurrection of Christ was the solution to all the problems that arose in the church.
3. Seek much counsel. The Proverbs tell us, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). I have, by God’s grace, been able to navigate many challenges over 7 years of church planting because I have spent a seemingly endless number of hours pouring over the Scriptures and calling wiser and more seasoned pastors. Those who have gone before you have already faced most of the challenges, contentions or complaints that you will face in pastoral ministry–after all, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Sometimes you learn from the failings of those older and wise than you and sometimes you learn from their successes. Find the wisest pastors you can and attach yourself to them in order to glean every drop of wisdom that you can from them. This is paramount to learning how to bring contentions, complaints and controversies to an end. Pastors must pray for the wisdom needed to deal wisely and justly in overseeing God’s people.
4. Keep matters within the confines of the pastors and officers of a church. Always keep the substance of controversy or complaints within the confines of the session (i.e. the board) of elders and deacons. The church as a whole doesn’t need to know everything that happens. A wise friend once told me–as I faced one of the first challenges that I faced in the early days of church planting–“Never complain down the chain of command.” This is sage advice that–while difficult to follow–must be pursued every day of a pastor’s life. It is detrimental to the life of the church if a pastor complains to other members of the church about those who are causing problems within the congregation. Apart from taking matters outside of the officers of the church in order to seek counsel from mentors, keep the circle of knowledge about the sin of congregants as small as possible.
5. Speak collectively, not as an individual. Speaking as an individual–rather than as a session–to those in the church who are causing division, who are complaining, gossiping or slandering or who are spinning narratives and passive-agressively trying to get their own way is one of the great mistakes pastors frequently make. Rather than turning it into a personal matter between a single pastor and a congregant(s), the lead pastor should always get on board with the other pastors/elders of the church in order to speak collectively to an issue. Instead of the solo, senior or lead pastor responding to a complaint by saying, “I don’t think that we should…” the session should always respond to issues by saying, “We have decided…” This is the beauty of a Presbyterian form of government, however, it can be a reality in other fellowships where there are elders and deacons. The Lord wants his office-bearers to lead collectively (Acts 15:6 ff.).
6. Seek to defuse every situation as quickly as possible. A wise pastor will seek to defuse every contention, unjust complaint and controversy in the church as quickly and as effectively as possible. This is not always an easy thing to do. It may mean meeting for hours with one or more of the people causing the contentions or controversy. The goal of a pastor is to patiently and gently help such individuals see the severity of what they have created and to strongly encouraging them to set aside whatever contentions they may have. At times, defusing the situation may mean lightening the mood. More often than not, tensions run high unnecessarily in any given situation. If a minister can lighten the mood in an appropriate way to show that things are not as serious as some try to make them, it can, in certain circumstances defuse an escalating crisis. Great wisdom is need here, however. This can backfire on a pastor or session. If a person is perpetually contentious, he or she will not allow you to lighten the mood. In fact, they will despise you more for seeking to do so. Lightening the mood can also enable people in their sin. We don’t want to make contentious or complaining congregants think that their sin is not serious.
7. Never simply give in to contentious or complaining congregants for the sake of peace. One of the biggest mistakes that pastors make is to give in to the demands of discontent or contentious congregants simply to keep them happy. By doing so, they inadvertently empower sinful congregants. If pastors give in on one thing for which sinfully discontent congregants contend, be assured that there will be another and another and yet another. There will be congregants with legitimate concerns or requests. The session should weigh them seriously and carefully. It may be wise for the session to act in accord with the concerns or requests of congregants. However, the person bringing the concern and the nature of the concern are all at the foundation of whether or not a session should concede for the sake of peace. It may be wise to do so if you are dealing with a congregant who is not systemically contentious or discontent. This also takes much wisdom.
8. Be willing to lose congregants who continue to contend. While losing congregants is never something that pastors want, it is sometimes best for a congregation. If a matter cannot be resolved through the process of church discipline, pastors must be prepared to lose congregants. I have witnessed, on numerous occasions, individuals leave a church as soon as the session asked to meet with them. If a congregant willfully refuses to meet with a the elders to whom they have taken vows to submit, he or she is subject to excommunication. However, when the contentions or complaints of certain individuals are not severe enough to proceed to church discipline–it may come to the point where elders have to help discontent congregants move on to another congregation. While never something for which pastors should be eager, we must remember that perpetually discontent congregants cause much harm to a church. It may be that another church in the area is large enough or structured enough to care for such individuals. In smaller congregations, contentious or complaining individuals think that their complaints will be heard more readily. It may be necessary for pastors–who are not patiently able to get through to contentious, complaining or divisive congregants–to have to say, “Maybe this church isn’t a good fit for you…” This is not necessarily mean-spirited or selfish. Pastors are called to care for the flock as a whole. Such care for the entire body of believers may mean encouraging unthankful, discontent, bitter or selfish congregants to move on to another church.
No pastor enjoys the hard work of handling contentions and unjust complaints in the church. Most controversies in the church stem from contentions and unjust complaints being allowed to fester and run wild. Every situation is unique and there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to every contention and controversy with which pastors have to deal. The Gospel is the only sure and lasting remedy; however, much pastoral skill and wisdom is needed to guide the various challenges to a peaceful end. Thankfully, pastors are not alone–they have an Almighty God in heaven, who has promised to stand with them; they have the Scriptures as the perfect rule for how He wants His church to function in a fallen world; they have a cloud of witnesses who have gone before them, and who have left them an example to follow; and, they have a myriad of pastors who have born the burden of the day, and who can now give them counsel from their loses and victories. May the Lord give his under-shepherds wisdom as they face the unique challenges that bring them to an end of themselves (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5, 6; and 12:9) and cause them to depend on the God of peace and wisdom.