Warning: Pastors, some of you may not like me much after you read this. But if we are going to preach the hard truths to our people, maybe sometimes we need to listen to the hard truths ourselves. Divided churches and church splits are a huge problem today. And we like to blame those sinful, divisive, unruly people for all the problems. But I am going to call the “blame the people” response into question here. I think church splits are usually started by rebellion or ungodly attitudes among people, but they are assisted by wrong attitudes and actions by church leaders. I hope you will listen to what I am saying here. I have a heart for pastors and for church unity. I hate to see good men of God make bad mistakes that bring dire consequences into Christ’s church.
I preached through the Old Testament in overview form from October 1, 2000 to August 13, 2005, on Sunday nights in Cedar Rapids. It was formative in my theology, as I began to see some patterns in the ways of God. One of those patterns I’ve turned into a book which I hope will be published before the Lord returns, called, “Significant Servants.” But I noticed something else, something that perhaps many of us who are pastors may not want to admit.
Whenever God was at work among his people, there was always conflict and dissent. Someone would criticize, complain or even oppose what God was doing. Moses experienced it. Joshua. David. It is a pretty common pattern. However, when the leaders sought God and responded correctly, God made their staffs bud, demonstrating his favor on them and enabling them to lead through the division to accomplish God’s purpose. In Acts, there was often opposition to the work of God. But the Apostles and others continued in Christ until he brought unity and overcame the obstacles.
I love the story in 1 Samuel 30 where David and his men returned from battle to find their women and children kidnapped. The men, in their anger, turned against David and there was talk of a mutiny, of stoning David. David didn’t fight back, he poured out his heart to the Lord and the Lord worked through the situation to bring victory. On the other hand, it was Rehoboam’s folly that led to the split into two nations. These seem to me to be recurring patterns. Relying on God overcomes obstacles while fleshly folly fuels division.
So, here are my two strong beliefs based on my observations of Scripture.
1) Disunity is always a part of God’s people. Whenever God is at work, there will be some movement of the enemy or of the flesh to undermine this work. We are at war, folks, with the principalities and powers. Will they sit idly by while we work? The pastor who expects everyone to love him and support him is doomed to a life of disappointment. There will be enemies without and enemies within and it is all a natural part of living in a fallen world which lives under Satan’s deceptions.
2) Disunity becomes division when leaders react wrongly. We pastors always like to blame the rebellious, sinful people for our problems and for the division in the church. But when we respond in the right way to disunity, it rarely continues on to division. That is pretty much the case throughout scripture. When the leaders sought God and his help, the people of God overcame the disunity accomplished God’s purpose.
I’ve done a little bit of a non-scientific study of church divisions and splits. The makings of a church split exist in your church right now as they do in mine – our churches are filled with sinners whose sinful hearts can betray them into sinful action. But I have observed in reality what I have also observed in the scripture – that it is often crucial (and often sincere or at least unintentional) errors by leadership in a church that causes disunity to become division that leads to a split.
The Causes and Cures of Church Splits
So, in summary, disunity and even rebellion are normal parts of churches in a sinful and fallen world. No amount of “regenerate church membership” or church discipline can banish sinners and their sinful actions from the church. We can limit it, but not eliminate it. Even as good-looking, sweet and kind as I am (no, you need not comment on this), there has always been someone in every church I’ve been in whom I sarcastically call “chair of the Dave Miller fan club.” I remember one lady who would sit and stare daggers at me every Sunday morning – oh, she hated me. Another man would, I’m sure, claim the sky was pink if I said it was blue. You cannot avoid that. But I believe that we can, if we do things right, avoid or at the least greatly reduce church splits and the path of destruction those leave. Here are some ideas I have come to believe and recommend to you.
I will, within this discussion, address the popular question, “Is Calvinism a chief culprit in the rash of church splits we see today?” To that question, I will give an unequivocal YES, and an equally forceful NO.
1) Whose agenda are you on?
I know some of you aren’t crazy about him, but Henry Blackaby is my hero - the most significant human influence on my life other than my father. He wrote an excellent book called “Spiritual Leadership” – the best I’ve ever read. It diverges from the common corporate CEO-based models of leadership in some significant ways. The core principle of the book is the question, “Whose agenda are you working?”
My job as a pastor is to find and operate on God’s agenda. If I am working in cooperation with God’s agenda, then the Holy Spirit is the motivator and mover to accomplish that agenda. If I am doing my own thing and working my own plan, then I have no promise from God that the Spirit will aid me in accomplishing my will or my agenda in the church. This is a hard distinction to make and often we struggle to figure out the difference.
It is easy for me to assume that my agenda is God’s. I’ve done it. So have you. It is a dangerous thing. When I confuse my desires, my ambitions and my need for control with the will of God, there will generally be division in the church. God’s power is not available to me accomplish my will or to promote my glory or to attain my ambitions.
But two things are true. When I am working God’s agenda, the Spirit is my ally, “and a powerful ally (he) is.” He works on my behalf to calm dissension, to overcome obstacles and to accomplish GOD’s work. On the other hand, it is God’s church and I have no right to attempt to force my agenda or to use God’s church to glorify myself, make a name for myself or accomplish my will. If I do that, I make myself the enemy of God’s agenda. I rob him of his glory.
I wish I had never done that. I have. And I wish that I did not believe that one of the most common problems in churches today is pastors who are operating on agendas other than God’s. I know this is judgmental, but it is my observation. When I have seen a church divided, I have almost universally observed a pastor who has mishandled a situation, responded in pride not humility to criticism or who is advancing a self-centered agenda.
I remember a church (and this is just an obvious example) in Eastern Iowa that was growing rapidly. The church had a tiny parsonage that housed the pastor and his family. A church attender offered to build a huge new parsonage on the church property. It is my impression that he was a church hopper and was probably trying to buy influence in the church, but the pastor was thrilled with the idea. Division occurred when the pastor tried to force that idea through to approval and church members (who were rightly suspicious of the character of the one making the offer) resisted. That church split because of a parsonage. No, because my good friend lost sight that he was a servant of God’s agenda and started serving his own. It took a long time before that church recovered.
2) The problem is often the pastor’s hidden change-agenda. (Warning: Calvinism Discussion Alert)
We have spent a lot of time arguing here whether Calvinism is inherently divisive. Does it cause church splits? I think it is hard to argue against the notion that many churches have split when a new pastor brought Calvinist convictions and perspectives into a church that was previously not Calvinist. I have seen it several times. But I saw the same thing when the Willow Creek phenomenon occurred. A pastor would go into a traditional church and try to transform it to be a “seeker-sensitive” church. There were many churches that imploded.
The problem is not Calvinism or seeker-sensitivity. Those are the flash-points, the triggers. But the problem is the pastor’s agenda. Churches have a history and a personality. When a pastor comes in to a church with an agenda to transition to elder-leadership, or to move to becoming a “Nine-Marks” or “Desiring God” church, there is the potential for conflict. And yes, I know of specific examples where a pastor entered a church with just such an agenda but did not tell the church. Then, in the first couple of years, he begins to implement an agenda that he did not reveal and people did not sign on to. Many don’t like it and leave (and are often painted as bad people in the process).
My point is, the problem is not Calvinism, but the pastor’s unspoken agenda. If I went into a Calvinist church with an anti-Calvinist agenda, or into a conservative church with a more moderate agenda, or into a moderate church with a conservative agenda, or…well, I think you get the point - there would be trouble. The reality in the SBC right now is that there are a lot of young Calvinist pastors going into churches that aren’t Calvinistic. The result is often division. The fault is not with Calvinism or seeker-sensitivity or whatever, but with the unrevealed, unspoken, hidden agenda of the pastor.
3) The problem is often pastoral arrogance.
Oh, no he didn’t! Yes, I said it. I spend my life around pastors. Let’s admit what none of us want to admit. When you are in a role of pastoral leadership in the church, it is very easy to let pride and arrogance surface. I want to make a name for myself. I want to build a following. I want the adulation of people who think I’m just the best preacher they’ve ever heard!
It is that pride that makes us so competitive at times. When I pastored in Virginia, we had regular pastors’ fellowship meetings. We would meet in the sanctuary then go to the fellowship hall for lunch. Every church had one of those statistics boards on the wall, and you could almost hear the gears whirring as pastors would check out the boards and make comparisons. When they came to my church, I played a little prank. I changed our worship numbers from 129 to 921. And the offerings that day (if real) were enough to make everyone drool. I sat through the whole meeting enjoying watching people stared at the board. As we were going down to lunch, I suddenly and loudly realized my mistake and corrected the totals. They had a good laugh, but it illustrates a point.
Sit down in a group of pastors and listen to the conversation. Pretty soon, they will be talking about who is the busiest and who has the better numbers. We are sometimes insecure people who need approval and need validation, and often the best way to get that is through numbers.
Arrogance causes me to seek my own agenda and to pursue the glory of my name instead of seeking God’s agenda and pursuing the glory of his name. Pride is the root of sin and pastoral pride is often the root of division in the church.
4) We’ve got to learn to respond to criticism in a godly way.
Again, pastor, you are going to be criticized. How are you going to respond? Do you get mad and fight back? Or do you love your enemy and return good for evil? Pastors sometimes want to punish those who criticize them. We will use the pulpit to fight our personal battles, to defend ourselves and attack (subtly) those who would dare to “touch God’s anointed.” We act as if criticizing the pastor is somehow an offense against heaven and the response is brutal.
A pastor I know came under some harsh and unfair criticism. But he forgot that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. He fought fire with fire instead of returning good for evil and leaving vengeance in the hands of God. The church split wide open. Why? I believe if the man had loved his enemies and responded with grace, things would have been very different. No, the sinful people who treated the pastor badly cannot be excused. But the pastor ignored Solomon’s wisdom that a gentle answer turns away wrath and he responded with anger. He poured gas on a fire and, surprise, it was not extinguished.
Pastors, it hurts when someone says something harsh to or about you. But you have the choice to leave vengeance in God’s hands and return good for evil, or you can try to silence all opposition, paint them as bad guys and drive them out. I think many of us in ministry are insecure and sensitive and as such it leads to an excessive reaction to criticism. We need to find our strength and security in God and not in the opinions of people – whether positive or negative.
If you wonder whether pastors are good or bad in general at receiving criticism, watch how we respond to real or imagined criticisms on blogs.
5) Please, let’s leave behind the “addition by subtraction” and “weeding out the tares” metaphors.
Pastors sometimes brag as if driving a bunch of people away from the church is an heroic thing – purifying the church by getting rid of “those people.” There is no question that one or two troublemakers leaving a church can be a boon to the ministry. And I think efforts at regenerate church membership are noble and good. But sometimes we use these as excuses to paint those who leave our churches as bad people. Frankly, the way we treat those who leave us sometimes amounts to little more than slander and abuse.
One of the markers of a cult, or an abusive church, is the way they treat people who choose to leave the fellowship. I have watch people I knew to be genuine followers of Christ but had some reasonable problems with the way their church was being led be treated like spiritual lepers. Instead of staying and causing trouble, they left the church. But when they left, they were branded as troublemakers and perhaps even false brethren. That is spiritual abuse as far as I am concerned.
Beware of a church or pastor who vilifies, especially publicly, those who leave the flock. Look, I’m an undershepherd of the Great Shepherd. Someone can stay in HIS care but leave mine.
6) The key is patience
I read something in Lyle Schaller’s book, “The Change Agent” back in my seminary days. He says we should invest three years in a church before we try to make systemic changes to the way the church operates. When I came to the church I currently serve, it was deeply wounded from a bad split (is there such a thing as a good one?). I followed this advice. People came to me with change agendas and I asked them just to give the church time to heal and re-energize after the horrible illness it had gone through. Had I tried to force some kind of change agenda on the church in the first couple of years it could have imploded this fellowship.
The worst mistake young pastors sometimes make is going into a church and trying to remake the traditions of that church in the first few months of their tenure. Don’t try to alter a church’s direction until you have invested enough time for the people to know you and trust you and be ready to follow you. So many problems in churches could be avoided if pastors would just wait 3 or 4 years before they start trying to alter the direction of a hundred year old church.
There is so much more I can say here, but this is already over 2500 words, so I guess its time to stop. And, yes, I know that I have made generalizations to which there are exceptions. I am writing a blog post not a book. But I believe that these generalities are generally true, even if there are exceptions.
Just remember, I am the anointed leader of this blog and any criticism of me if clearly wrong and evil. Touch not the anointed!!!! Oh, wait…never mind. Go ahead and tell me what you think.