Conduct in Conflict
This article is Chapter 11 of my book, ‘Tongues Revisited: A Third Way’ published in 2000, and available in hard copy, or as a Kindle book via Amazon.com (See link below). The article is copied directly, unedited, from the book.
The book arose out of a conflict that developed in the church I was a part of back then, which eventually led to the church splitting, with all leadership stepping down and leaving. The back story to this chapter was this conflict, and that is detectable in part throughout the chapter. However, it is also a series of general suggestions as to how we should conduct ourselves in any of the many and varied conflicts that plague us due to our ‘human condition’. I commend it to you as a very practical, down to earth application of the Biblical worldview to human relationships.
For a website dedicated to the book and associated supporting information, see:
Tongues Revisited: A Third Way.
Grace in times of Conflict - Seventeen Suggestions for Conduct in a Theological Civil War
Unfortunately, the history of church splits caused by the charismatic movement presents a rather dismal story.[i] The church of which I am a member experienced such a split some years ago. It was not pleasant! To have a ‘Geneva Convention’ that could guide us in the conduct of a theological civil war would be nice, but as there is none, I would like to offer a few ‘suggestions’. These suggestions do not only apply to conflict over charismatic or other theological issues. In fact I suspect that most conflicts in churches are not over theological issues at all but result from simple lack of wisdom. Decisions affecting the church may be made in the wrong way, made incompetently, or with little or no consideration of those who will be affected by them. Other conflicts may stem from personality clashes or misunderstanding. Although these suggestions focus on conduct in times of conflict and controversy, they can equally apply to everyday relationships with other people. In addition, they are easier suggested than applied!
- Suggestion 1: Address the issue or issues
Be particularly careful to avoid bringing unrelated questions or side issues into the argument. Establish precisely what the problems are and deal specifically with them. I guess we have all felt, at some time, the frustration of being accused of something, and then having that accusation snowball into a whole range of accusations unrelated to the first one. To steadfastly refuse to address anything other than the issue at hand is an excellent way to stop or slow the escalation of a war.
- Suggestion 2: Hit the issues rather than people
In the tensions that develop as the two sides entrench, personal animosity can very easily develop. People, rather than issues, can be targeted and ad hominem attacks can become the order of the day. Of course when you address issues you address people. Error does not enter a church by wafting through the windows. It comes through the door in people’s heads – people we may be related to, may like, or respect. Much as we may prefer to avoid personal confrontation over issues, when error emerges, it is avoidable only at the cost of truth. It is nevertheless possible to put the issues outside of oneself, so that when an issue is addressed and attacked, I personally am not.
Obviously, it may be difficult not to feel personally offended when someone attacks an idea which we hold dear. But if the idea is wrong, and shown clearly to be wrong, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge our error. If the idea we hold is right, we must act in such a way so that those who have attacked it, encounter no obstacles in us that get in the way of their adoption of it. Humility is required by us on both counts.
If you don’t have good arguments for your position, emotional attack can quickly become a substitute for the inadequate argument. People can easily feel threatened both culturally and theologically and feelings of threat are fertile ground from which an emotional response or a personal attack can grow. I am grateful that in the situation that developed in my church, personal attack and ad hominem arguments played very little part as far as I am aware.
- Suggestion 3: Avoid name calling
One thing that can quickly aggravate a situation is name-calling. Names can effectively lock people into boxes. Presumably those who call others names would like to move those they oppose away from the position the name signifies. However, name-calling is more likely to entrench a person in the view named than move them from it. Name-calling does not do justice to the diversity of people there are, nor to the varying degrees of conviction with which views are held.
Of course names are important and it is not a sin to correctly label something. There is such a thing as heresy and people who hold heresies are heretics. But that does not mean such terms should be used with wild abandon in the way name-callers often use them. Some people may be just toying with heresy, not yet sure whether it is true or false. Such people may be corrected quite easily, while others may be hardened in error to the point of obstinacy.[ii] To label the latter people as heretics may be quite justified. However to label the former people in this way is hardly fair and may entrench them in the heresy.
We should not forget that Scripture uses strong names for people and describes some behaviour in very graphic terms.[iii] Jesus himself, was brutally explicit at times, as can be seen in Matthew 23: ‘…hypocrites…’, ‘…blind guides…’, ‘…whitewashed tombs…’, ‘You snakes, you brood of vipers!…’ Such names however, he reserved for those who were perverse and he used them in the utmost seriousness. Notable godly men in history were also people of colourful speech. The great Reformer, Martin Luther, apparently did not hesitate to use strong language and imaginative names to describe some of his opponents.
However it is easy to see yourself as the only one that is lily-white and all others as deserving of any name you can dream up. If you can add two, three, or four names together, all the better – and it shows also that you are quite smart! Frankly I am not prepared to fight alongside people who do this because I think they are more of a liability to the cause of Christ than an asset.
What if others name-call you? Ask the Lord to help you be gracious enough to simply let it pass. The name-calling may disappoint you. It may hurt you and slander you. But ask the Lord to help you to have no internal response – to let it flow off you like water off a duck’s back. Rather than feel angry or feel the need to swiftly justify or defend yourself, perhaps you could feel pity for the one who calls the names. Commit your defence to Christ. He can vindicate you in His own time.[iv]
- Suggestion 4: Defend others who are unjustly treated
I have suggested that we should not swiftly rise in self-defence when we are name-called or slandered but should ask the Lord to defend us. However when others are slandered it is a different matter. We should be the first to rise in their defense. What can happen in a war is that everyone keeps their heads down so as to preserve their own skin. Those who put their heads up get targeted, and yet others, who may in fact be sympathisers, let them take the flak alone. While I do not think we should defend ourselves except in exceptional circumstances, others who are slandered or unjustly treated should be defended with all our might. We should not do this because of some advantage we consider it could bring us, or because of the self-preserving attitude, ‘If he or she goes, I’m next in line’. We should do it because it is the right thing to do.
Unfortunately it is possible – even for Christians – to act politically. They do this to position themselves well by allowing others to be the ‘fall guys’ in a war, so that when it is over they can come out with a clean hide. If we will not defend our brothers and sisters who are treated unjustly in the church, will we ever stand for what is right anywhere? A sailor’s skill is not tested in calm weather but in the storm. The quality of a soldier is not exposed in the mess, but where the bullets fly. The test of character is how it responds in the tough times, not how it acts in the sweet.
Several years ago a cruise liner sank off the coast of South Africa. The crew were the first to leave the ship, with the Captain leaving on the first helicopter that arrived. The total rescue effort was left to the passengers and one or two men who were dropped in to help.[v] It is possible that in a theological war the rescue effort will be mounted by only a few (not necessarily recognised leaders), because others prefer to keep their own skin intact.
In the example of the cruise liner that sank, the passengers who organised the rescue were viewed as heroes after the event by the other passengers. In the story of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, when the little boy guilelessly pointed out that the King had no clothes on, everyone agreed and acknowledged how gutless they had been. However, if you are involved in the rescue of a church, don’t expect to be viewed necessarily as a hero when the battle is over. The story of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ is not strictly true to life because in real life the boy would very likely have had a hand slapped over his mouth and been told to be silent. Because most people, including Christians, want personal peace, those who put truth before personal peace are often viewed as trouble-makers. What can happen is illustrated by the following parable.
The ship was sailing through calm waters and everyone on board was happy. The Captain and Officers were in control and were entertaining hosts to the passengers. But behold a storm appeared and started to batter the ship. The waves grew higher and higher and the ship was tossed with great violence. The passengers had early on retired below decks but as the storm increased in ferocity, the Captain and Officers also went below, leaving the ship without anyone at the helm. Some common seamen from among the crew understood the danger, and in turns, took the wheel and fought the storm and successfully brought the ship through to safety. When calm waters were again reached, the passengers reappeared, accused the seamen of being responsible for the storm and called for the Captain and Officers to begin the entertainment again.
- Suggestion 5: Do not think the world depends on you
The Lord may graciously use you at times to halt the encroachment of error. However, while at times you may be strong, at other times you may be weak. The Lord can orchestrate things so that when one person is ‘down’, another is ‘up’, and through this He can teach us it is His work and not ours. At one particularly stressful time for me when my church was disintegrating, I could see no solution to the situation which I faced. I had been issued an ultimatum and was at an impasse with no way out. The deadline was approaching so I mentioned the difficulty I faced to a friend. The Lord allowed that friend to supply the total answer to my predicament. I was as weak as I had ever been, but the Lord provided for me by supplying someone else with the strength and the appropriate insight at the precise time it was needed. The church is God’s church, not ours. It rests on His shoulders not mine. I may have a part to play in building it, in strengthening it and defending it, but that is all. I have only a part to play.
- Suggestion 6: Do your homework
I am sure that many people have reacted to the charismatic movement for inadequate reasons. Likewise, I am sure that charismatics have been argued against with totally inadequate arguments. In this work I have critiqued some of the arguments that I consider inadequate. Inadequate arguments miss the point, obscure the issues and create tension. They are in fact irrelevant to an issue. Those against which they are used gain only a hollow victory by their demolition and those who hold them gain nothing but a worthless psychological prop.
When I was a teenager, a Bible teacher who I respected greatly told me that the best way to understand and refute an error was to correctly understand the passages used in support of the error. The tendency is to think that those who build erroneous doctrines on certain verses somehow own those verses. We can be tempted to bypass these verses in the fear that they may actually turn out to support those whom we oppose.
When we are faced with what we consider to be an urgent situation, we may jump at the first apparent solution that comes our way. We should not pragmatically think that anything is better to fight with than nothing. We must take time to think and to reflect and to ask the Lord for help in understanding the issues before us. In other words, we need to do our homework, and that takes time. We need to wield the truth, not some half-baked theory that we’ve grabbed in the urgency of the moment. There is always time to do your homework. This book is in effect the result of me doing my homework. It has taken around fourteen years!
- Suggestion 7: Seek at all times to have a clear conscience before God and man
Paul said in his defence to Felix the Governor:
- So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
In all of our dealings with people we should follow Paul’s example. Through being devoted to the Lord and having a passion to obey him, we should develop a sensitive conscience and avoid at all cost the searing of our conscience through rationalising or tolerating ungodly behaviour. If our conscience is not clear, then we should at the earliest possible moment confess whatever is wrong to God and to any people concerned, and so clear it.
As the temperature was rising in my own church, I wrote some things out of frustration. The content was valid but the way I said it was not. I put barbs in which were designed to hurt. After giving this statement to the people concerned, I began to regret the barbs I had included. Eventually I apologised for them and asked the people I had intended to hurt to forgive me. I did not apologise for everything I had written; I made it very clear I was not backing away from the principles I had expressed, but I was asking forgiveness for the barbs. By doing this I cleared my conscience. I was no longer plagued by regrets nor needed any longer to feel any guilt for the barbs. Nobody can ever bring those things up against me again; they have gone for good.
There is nothing that the enemies of God hate more than a person with a clear conscience. One of the most powerful forms of manipulation is manipulation through guilt. By playing on what you should have done but haven’t, or what you have done but shouldn’t have, a person can manipulate you in all sorts of ways. I came to understand this years ago and decided then that manipulation had no part in a Christian’s life, neither in the manipulation of others nor in being manipulated by others. The person who has a clear conscience does not feel guilty and therefore cannot be manipulated on the basis of a presumed guilt. (Actually it is possible that marked differences can be maintained without guilt ever being an issue.)
Yet there are Christians who seem to be convinced that it is impossible for a believer to have a clear conscience, particularly during a church civil war, or after a church split. They seem inflicted by the ‘we are all guilty’ syndrome. No doubt you have come across this in the media; e.g. after some particularly horrendous crime, the analysts and psychologists get to work and come up with the profound insight that it is not really the criminal’s fault at all – they are not really responsible – rather, it is the community that is to blame. “This criminal was a ‘loner’. We should have befriended him – we should have done this that or the next thing. We are all to blame”. But this is fallacious. The Bible teaches us that people are held accountable for their actions. We are not all to blame at all.[vi]
In any controversy, for example, in a fight, a marriage breakup, or a church split, blame is not necessarily shared evenly by all. To assume that it is, may be to evaluate the particular situation in a most unjust way. If one party is innocent but all parties are deemed guilty, the innocent party is violated. To people who assume that in church controversies everyone involved is guilty, a person who claims to have a clear conscience is to them doubly perverse. They are not only guilty but they claim to be innocent! The question then is, “Is it possible to have a clear conscience?” On the basis of Paul’s comment to Felix I say, “Yes!”
But someone may say, “Doesn’t a clear conscience presuppose perfection of life?” The answer is, “No, it does not.” I am committed to the doctrine of the total depravity of Man. This doctrine says that when Adam and Eve rebelled, their total being was affected by their rebellion. Every aspect of their being was corrupted and everything they or their descendants touched from then on carried the marks of this corruption. ‘Total depravity’ does not mean we are as bad practically as we can be, because obviously we could all do worse things than we have done.
There are two aspects to this. There is the aspect that I am a sinner by nature regardless of the number or extent of sinful acts I have committed. That is why all Christians should acknowledge they are sinners, desperately in need of God’s grace. But there is also the practical outward expression of this depravity in sinful acts. The extent of this practical expression may vary enormously. The reason God gave us Biblical law was to limit this outward expression of sin. It was not given to remove our basic depraved nature, something the law cannot do, nor was ever designed to do.
In contrast to ‘depravity’ is ‘righteousness’. What our Lord did when he died on the cross was to make it possible for us to be forgiven for our rebellion and for us to be placed by God into a position where we are imputed with Christ’s righteousness. This means that at present we are seen by the Father as no longer depraved but righteous by merit of the righteousness of Christ, and this even though we still sin. In the future we will be actually righteous in nature because of the removal by God of our actual sinful nature.
There is however a second aspect to righteousness as there is to depravity. The Lord requires us to live out a practical righteousness, not to merit salvation, but as an expression of our worship of him. Scripture speaks from beginning to end of this practical, achievable righteousness of life (See Gen. 6:9, ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time…’ and Job 1:1, ‘…Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil…’). But Scripture not only speaks of it, it expects it of those who profess to be the people of God. If it is possible to practically live in this righteous way, then it must also be possible to have a clear conscience in this same practical sort of way. And that is what Paul speaks of. He not only speaks emphatically of the sinfulness of all people, and calls himself ‘the chief of sinners’, he says to Felix that he, Paul, strives to have a clear conscience at all times.
Therefore, in the midst of the conflict in a church over doctrinal matters, or in the devastation that may follow a split, it is genuinely possible to have and to maintain a clear conscience. While there can be enormous tensions and great volatility, it is possible, and I maintain is absolutely necessary if we are to be true to Christ, to so conduct ourselves in such situations that we do not sin against God or against our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. This is even though sometimes hard things may have to be said and theological lines drawn and defended. But let us be diligent to see we ‘speak the truth in love.’
Even if we end up not talking to others, which can in fact occur, this must not be because of hatred or ill feeling. If it does happen, then only let it do so because we have lost common ground and have nothing of much substance to talk of. It’s a big world and there is space in it for all of us. We don’t have to live in each other’s pockets – we can live and let live. Such a relationship may not be ideal but neither is it necessarily directly sinful.
In this matter of having a clear conscience, the putting right of wrongs is essential. If you become aware that you have wronged someone, confess it and get it put right as quickly as possible. If you become aware that someone has something against you, go to them as soon as you are able and clarify what the problem is – if there really is a problem – and resolve it. Christ had two very specific things to say about these types of situations. The first is in Matthew 5:23-24. He said:
- “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,
- leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
This is the situation where you have wronged someone else and it comes to your mind. The Lord sets up this drama of you remembering this wrong, right at the point of you offering your gift at the altar. He says that the putting right of a wrong is a pre-condition of worship. In effect Jesus teaches that we cannot be right with God without being right with our fellow man. John reiterates this idea in 1 John 4:20:
- If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
Putting right a wrong is so important that even the most sacred activities should be delayed until it is done. A modern counterpart to Jesus’ illustration today would be setting things right before taking ‘communion’. While the Lord’s Supper is not primarily about human relationships either inside or outside the church, there nevertheless is a connection. If a wrong has been done against a fellow-believer, it is hypocritical to participate in an act signifying communion with the Lord when there is a breach in the communion between his people.
The second thing the Lord said was in Matthew 18:15-17:
- “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
- But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
- If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Here you are the one who has been wronged. The Lord says that even if you are in the right, the putting right of wrongs is so important that you yourself should take the initiative in doing this. It is so important in fact, that you must persist even when the wrong is not acknowledged by the one who did it. Take others with you as witnesses to your efforts to set things right and so the other person’s stubbornness can be seen. If this process fails, then the church should be advised, and if the person’s stubbornness persists, then the person should be excommunicated. Obviously in dealing with people outside the church, only the first two stages of this three-stage process applies. The third stage in that case may be court action depending on the seriousness of the wrong done.
Irrespective of whether we may have wronged others or have ourselves been wronged by others, putting a wrong right entails three steps:
- Confession and repentance.
- Restitution or restoration.
If you have wronged another person and you become aware of the wrong you have done, your responsibility is to repent of the wrong and to confess it to the person you have wronged. Their responsibility then is to forgive you, on your repentance and confession. If you confess but they do not forgive, you are in the clear but they have now committed a wrong. It is tragic, but people who were wronged and were innocent, can become guilty through being unwilling to forgive the one who wronged them, on their repentance and confession.
Once forgiveness has been extended, the one forgiven should do all in their power to make restitution for the consequences of their wrong. If, for example, as a consequence of a wrong you have committed, a person has been maligned in the sight of others, then you should seek to correct any misunderstanding others may have.
Unfortunately, it is frequently impossible to correct everything. David was forgiven by the Lord for the murder of Uriah, and for his adultery with Bathsheba, but his wrong-doing produced devastating effects for many years for his family and the nation of Israel. However, the fact that not everything can be put right should not be used as an excuse to avoid making every effort to put as much right as possible. One of the reasons for putting things right as quickly as possible is that the longer a wrong is allowed to fester, the more damaging the consequences that can result and the more difficult restoration will be. Central to Biblical law is the concept of restitution whether to man or to God. This requirement must be taken very seriously when putting wrongs right.
An additional facet of forgiveness is that forgiveness can only be granted to someone who has repented. The paradigm case in Scripture is that of God’s forgiveness of human beings. Forgiveness is offered, but only received by, those who repent.[vii] However, while forgiveness can only be extended on repentance and confession, our attitude must be that we are ever willing to forgive the person who wronged us as soon as they repent.
We live in a day profoundly influenced by ‘psychology’. No main-stream psychological view acknowledges the reality of real right and wrong. Therefore, for psychology, real injustices and real wrongs do not exist. Injustices and wrongs are redefined in terms of ‘hurts’ done or received. The church has unfortunately been significantly influenced by such ideas and thus wrongs are often considered not only to be objective moral violations of a person in some way, but also as hurts inflicted on them. The more a person’s thinking is influenced by these psychological views, the more the emphasis will be laid on ‘hurts’.
Now causing a hurt may need to be confessed and repented of. But such a response can sometimes be totally inappropriate. If I become angry and punch someone on the nose, or if I call them names or slander their character, thus causing them physical or emotional hurt, that necessitates confession and repentance because it is a wrong I have committed. But if I am a dentist drilling decay out of a tooth, or if I correct someone by ‘speaking the truth in love’ to them, the hurt that I may cause in either case does not require repentance. Hurt has been caused but no wrong has been done and thus repentance is unnecessary. As a dentist I may express regret for the pain caused; as a Christian I may express sorrow for my justified correction of another in love. But regret or sorrow in either case does not equate to repentance. It is an acknowledgment of pain that is unfortunately necessary if a problem is to be fixed.
To clarify this more fully, consider three Biblical examples:
- Joseph, sold by his brothers into Egypt, is promoted to second place in the kingdom. His brothers come to him to buy food for them and their families. He tests them in a way which subjects them to much anguish over an extended period. Yet nowhere in the record is there any suggestion that Joseph committed wrong by putting his brothers through this suffering.
- Mary is pregnant and Joseph finds out. He is deeply disturbed, assumes his fiancée had been unfaithful, and so he decides to divorce her. Arriving at that decision must have been heart-rending for him. After he had so decided, an angel appears to him and tells him that Mary is pregnant with a child conceived through God’s direct action. God caused Joseph considerable hurt, but did God need to repent of this? No.
- Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit who would convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. The conviction of sin frequently causes a person much torment. Does the Holy Spirit commit a ‘wrong’ because He causes ‘hurt?’ Of course not.
A wrong is a particular moral violation of a person that must be set right. Let us right as many of the wrongs we have committed as possible, as well as causing as little hurt as possible – but also let’s never be seduced by psychological views that exclude real ethics.
- Suggestion 8. Be patient
Just as we must seek at all times to have a clear conscience, we need to also learn to be patient. We don’t know all that the Lord is doing or why he allows events to occur the way they do. He may allow error to intrude into a church as a means of testing it and honing the individuals within it. Paul wrote:
1 Cor. 11
- No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.
This runs directly counter to the promiscuous, undiscriminating unity that is often promoted in charismatic circles[viii] and which ignores the very real differences that exist. But the fact that God’s approval will become evident, suggests that we sometimes may have to patiently wait for his approval to be seen.
In his dealings with human beings, God is not usually in a hurry. He waited roughly four thousand years after the Fall before he acted to establish the actual ground on which salvation is based.[ix] His purposes have run two thousand years since Christ’s death and resurrection and who knows how much longer they may run.[x] There are a number of times recorded in Scripture when God refrained from acting because it was not the right time, and alternatively, acted when the time was right. The people of Israel went into Egypt for four hundred years because it was not the right time for the Canaanite nations to be judged. The Lord’s incarnation was said to be ‘when the time had fully come’. (Gal 4:4)
There is a time to act and a time to wait. If God took so long to do what he has done, then why should things we are involved with require to be done in haste? Frequently, by acting in haste, we aggravate situations, causing rancour and sin. Yes, we may be frustrated. Yes, we may be stressed. Yes, others may be getting their own way. Yes, they may be spreading confusion. Yes, they may even be subverting truth and corrupting the church. God knows these things far more clearly than we do. But let us be circumspect, prudent and cautious, rather than rash, insensitive and hasty. Time can also be like a rope with which people hang themselves. We may not have to force an issue at all. The steady passage of time can make situations clear and can more effectively turn the screws down on people who are wrong that anything we could do. I am not suggesting that we be negligent, slack or indecisive. I’m saying that there is a time to act and there is also a time to wait or proceed with caution. We should always seek to speak or act at the ‘right’ time, which may not be now. On the other hand it may be!
- Suggestion 9: Do not be an anarchist
Error may occur within the congregation in general or within the church leadership in particular. The manner in which we respond to these two sources of error will obviously differ and our methods may vary according to whether we are in leadership positions or not. My experience has been responding as a member of a congregation to what I consider to be error on the part of leadership. For a person in this situation, I say, “Do not be an anarchist.” Respect the authority structures in your church. You may not respect an office bearer but you must show them respect because of the office they hold.[xi] [xii] This may be very difficult.
When you have concerns, make them known to those in authority. If however, they are the ones whose errors you are concerned about, they can ensure that your concerns are effectively suppressed, or censored out of any teaching of the church, news bulletins, newsletters etc. By their suppression of justified concerns, such people can also cause misrepresentations of people to accumulate. Being misrepresented is something that can be deeply hurtful, yet one may have to learn to bear it. If you bear misrepresentation graciously and in a Christ-like manner, instead of fighting to defend yourself, the Lord will notice even though nobody else may, and he will reward you in due time.
Sometimes statements may need to be made to the church independently of the authority structures. If so, when and how they are done should be considered very carefully. I suggest they be done only when all other practicable channels have been exhausted. At one point I had intended to give some written comments to various people in the church and mentioned my plans to a friend on the day I was going to distribute it. She told her husband who contacted me and strongly suggested that I would be making a mistake. He was correct and I am grateful that my mistake was pointed out to me in time. A church however, is not, and should not be, a dictatorship with thought-police. Therefore it is quite valid for individuals to speak their mind, even though it may be contrary to the prevailing ethos.
If disagreement is long-standing and with leadership, a number of things can occur. Disillusionment and cynicism can become deeply entrenched, particularly if the leaders marginalise those with whom they disagree; lack awareness of how their decisions or actions may affect others; or are insensitive to the feelings of those in the congregation. Prolonged disillusionment and cynicism can produce a profound numbness in individuals, and the longer such a situation, and the cause of it, prevails, the less likely it is to be satisfactorily resolved. Church leaders must be very careful that they never allow such deeply entrenched disillusionment to develop in members of the congregation. Such numbness in an individual will very likely result in gradual withdrawal from the life and activities of the church, and may even manifest itself visibly in where the person sits in church meetings – most likely, further and further from where the action is, and closer and closer to the door. Eventually the individual may simply move through the door, never to return.
- Suggestion 10: Be faithful to God by being faithful to his church
The Church is Christ’s Church. Don’t give up on it in a hurry. He has lessons for you to learn and characteristics he intends to build within you. When the tensions increase, it is easy to want ‘out’. At some point this may be the appropriate course of action. However, I think it is possible to leave a church too quickly. Of course it depends on the particular circumstances. If a church has been established on the basis of certain doctrines, then I suggest that those who maintain those doctrines have prior right to the church and its capital resources, instead of those who are seeking to establish alternative and conflicting doctrines.
The usual situation that occurs in respect of the charismatic issue is that within a church already established with a non-charismatic doctrinal stance, a coup or takeover bid is staged. Some group in the church attempts to change the church into a charismatic church. (I have heard of only one charismatic church becoming non-charismatic and that was on the other side of the world somewhere. Perhaps the story was apocryphal). I think the proper and honest course of action is for those who have subscribed to the new doctrinal position, to leave and join a church that already holds to similar doctrines. If they want a building in which to propagate their ideas, they should spend their own money to acquire it, rather than stealing a building established by others.
The leaders of my church endeavoured to change it into a charismatic church. Our meetings at times were unbearable. Sunday after Sunday I came home with a headache – which I later learned was the result of stress. One Sunday I could take no more, so instead of attending the service, I took my youngest daughter for a walk over the hills by the sea. I have never felt so much like a refugee in all my life. I walked and walked and considered my options. My church was my spiritual home. Although it was being torn apart; although it was filled with tension and confusion, nevertheless it was my only home. If I left, I had nowhere to go, nowhere! Of course, other churches existed, but they were not my home. Was I prepared to be homeless? Was I prepared to be homeless? As I walked and carried my little girl on my back, I slowly came to the conclusion that I was not cut out to voluntarily be a refugee. If I was forced to be one, so be it, but I would not choose to be one. My church was my home, my only home, and I would stick with it until God resolved things. Numerous times after that I simply prayed, “Lord, please, please help us. I have no idea how you can sort this mess out but you do – so please do”.[xiii] I know that every situation is different and I would not be rigid on this. Nevertheless I still say, “Be faithful to God’s church.”
- Suggestion 11: Don’t promote yourself
The night before the Lord was crucified, he washed his disciples’ feet. The power and authority which he exhibited came from the nature and quality of his life and was of a totally different order from the usual human understanding of power and authority. Jesus served. He did not pursue power and authority. He did not manipulate others or ride over them so that he would get control. He did not seek to position himself so that when the chips fell he would be strategically placed for personal gain. He did not exploit people to suit himself, and discard them when he had no further use for them. He did not operate from a hidden, self-centred, agenda. Paul said that Jesus did not regard equality with his Father a thing to be held onto. We also should refrain from political aspirations and the manipulation of events for our own advantage or benefit.
Suggestion 12: Be very cautious about ultimatums
An ultimatum can force your own hand more than that of those whom you intend to force. In my own particular church situation, two ultimatums were made, each effectively being, “Do this or leave!” In both cases those who issued the ultimatums left the church, in one case, within one week of issuing their ultimatum, in the other, within two months. An ultimatum is an attempt to force people to conform to what the person issuing it wants. In some instances it could be merely a display of petulance with a grand exit staged for dramatic effect, but nothing whatsoever gained. In others, an ultimatum could be an attempt to resolve the situation by side-stepping debate and forcing things to a head. In yet other cases it may be hoped that a resolution can be achieved by a display of raw fire-power or an authoritarian command. In all of these situations, once the ultimatum is given, if the terms are not met, the person issuing the ultimatum is left with no alternative but to do what they said they were going to do – or to back down. Neither option may be helpful to anyone.
- Suggestion 13. Do not use a shotgun
The Deputy stepped from dusty Main Street onto the porch of the Hungry Horse Hotel. He hated this sort of thing. Every time he wondered if these would be his last moments. Would he see his new bride again? He crossed the two steps to the bat-wing doors that opened into the bar, thankful he had his sawn-off shotgun in his hands. At least it gave him a better than even chance. In the confusion of a bar-room brawl, you had to be sure you got your man. Too bad others got taken out as well but small cost for staying alive.
Checking the cartridges one more time, he pushed through the doors and moved two steps to the right to avoid leaving his back exposed as a target to the street. The brawling lulled and stopped as Bart’s presence was felt in the smoke-filled room. No one dared to mess with this man. Just to be near a target would mean you’d go down in a hail of lead from the shotgun he held.
Why a shotgun? Because you don’t have to be dead accurate with your aim. Sure, you may hit others as well, but just by pointing in the general direction you get your man. In church conflicts justified accusations may have to be brought against particular people. Perhaps injustices have been committed and those who committed them need to be called to account. Perhaps an individual has committed an injustice – or perhaps a group has done so. Perhaps one particular individual did the deed but others played a lesser role. Whatever the situation, to shoot off a general catch-all blast – what I call the ‘shotgun approach’ – which accuses not only the guilty but also the innocent, only serves to increase the number of injustices. It is never the Lord’s way to answer an injustice with an injustice. We need to be scrupulous about this point.
In the lead up to the split in my congregation, a number of ‘prophecies’ were given to the church. They were of this ‘shotgun’ type. Here is an example:
A picture came to me when praying with others. I “saw” an empty cross and the Lord standing some distance from it. I was standing with a small group of people a few metres in front of Him (I could not identify the others) and as I looked I saw He had a crown of thorns on His head which was roughly pulled down over His eyes. It seemed to me the thorns symbolised the pain and suffering we are causing in our fellowship through our tensions, bickering, criticism, and lack of love one to another. The crown pulled down over one eye and nose spoke of disgrace. Some of our behaviour is a disgrace to the very name of Christ. There arose in me a deep desire to lift that crown from off His head, and the others who were with me came and helped also, but there was a cost in doing that because the thorns pricked and pained our hands. It seemed that if any of us are prepared to make an effort to remove the pain and disgrace we are causing Christ we will have to be prepared for some pain and cost to ourselves. As He looked at us with a sad pitiful look He asked simply, “Are you going to crucify Me again?”
It was clear to me then, and is clear to me now, that a number of things were wrong with this so-called prophecy’. Consequently, I decided to critique it the following Sunday, along with three other ‘prophecies’ it was bracketed with. Public criticism of so-called ‘prophecies’ is not customary behaviour for me, in fact I had never done this before and have not since. One of my concerns with this ‘prophecy’ was with the general nature of the accusations, for example; ‘Some of our behaviour is a disgrace to the very name of Christ’. What specific behaviour was being referred to? Who precisely was committing this disgraceful behaviour? If this behaviour really was disgraceful, then we needed to know both what it was and who was doing it so it could be corrected. I asked rhetorically whether it was being committed by a number of people; mentioning the names of several godly older women in the church. To charge such people with disgraceful behaviour was preposterous – but these women got hit by the ‘hail of lead’! Why hit them?
Worse still, the ‘prophecy’ was saying that it was Jesus who was holding the shotgun and shooting into his church, knocking over the innocent with the guilty. It was after all claimed to be a vision from the Lord and given to the church as such, therefore it was the Lord blasting away! (By the way, it was not the resurrected glorified Lord of the Church, but instead a woebegone one who had somehow gotten off the cross and who was wandering forlornly around with his crown of thorns still on!)
This shotgun approach can of course just as easily be used without invoking the authority of God behind the charges to give yourself clout. Such tactics unnecessarily inflame situations by imputing fault in places where no fault may exist. This should not be done. It is unjust. If faults or sins must be referred to, have the courage to name both the offender and the specific offence, and if necessary, specifically exclude those you are not aiming at.
- Suggestion 14: Consult with others
In serious matters where accusations or charges are being made, I prefer to write a letter. This way I can reflect on what I want to say and take my time, rather than verbally ‘shoot from the hip’ – as the saying goes. I have found it helpful to let some trusted friends see my letters and comment on them. On such occasions, I ask them to consider whether I have written anything which is abrasive, inflammatory, untrue, unfair, or unnecessary. Of course the letter is my letter, but the reaction of others helps me view it through different eyes. This process could help me to moderate my tone or any statements I may have allowed due to frustration. I confess that I have not always followed my own advice – to my hurt!
The people you get to comment on such letters should preferably not be ‘in the thick of it with you’, because it may become just two or more ‘firebrands’ inciting each other. My intention in such consultation is to reduce inflammatory remarks, to moderate tone and to ensure things are done in a just way. If you decide to consult, this presupposes that you really do desire to act justly, and avoid as much as possible, stoking any fire there may be. Obviously, by consulting, you slow the process down. Normally a day or two would pass which allows for sober reflection. An alternative to consulting with others is to “Sleep on it”. Haste often spoils things – including letters written in times of church conflict.
- Suggestion 15: Avoid imputing false motives
Be very careful about claiming to know the inner motivations of others. We cannot see inside each other’s heads! Some psychological views understand all words as being masks for distinctly different meanings. As much as possible I take words spoken ‘at their face value’ and my policy is to speak that way also – speaking the truth honestly and without guile or ulterior motives. Unless I am aware from consistent and prolonged observation that a person is operating out of some hidden agenda, I am very reluctant to relate to them on the assumption they have one.
In this regard, I have observed that when our thoughts are occupied with a controversy, it is possible for us to escalate the conflict in our mind. Before we know where we are, we have turned those we are in conflict with into ogres with thoroughly evil intentions – almost the devil incarnate. Things must be kept in proportion. We must retain a firm grip on reality.
- Suggestion 16: Avoid simply reacting
When charges are made against us, we should not simply react against them and the person bringing them. Listen to the charges. Are they correct? Do they have a measure of truth about them? If they are not correct, explain why. If they are correct, acknowledge this. While maintaining ‘face’ is crucial in some cultures, even to the point of lying – this is not part of Biblical Christianity. Humility is a major Christian virtue and it is the very opposite of ‘saving face’.
- Suggestion 17: Be careful with e-mails
E-mail is remarkable. Quick, easy, global communication. But I have encountered several pitfalls with it. E-mail lends itself to ‘rebound’ responses. Such responses are often made on the spur of the moment to the detriment of both spelling and grammar, with words even being omitted altogether. Further, it is easy to say things by e-mail that might not necessarily be said to a person’s face. Body language is absent and so are other constraining factors which come with a person’s presence.
The speed of exchange via e-mail makes this a poor medium through which to conduct conflict. I argue that it is slowness, not speed, reflection and not reaction, which are needed in times of controversy and strife, but e-mail is not conducive to these objectives. Inflammatory and intemperate comments are more prone to be made when communication is fast. Another danger may apply in some cases. The ‘Reply’ and ‘Reply All’ buttons in mailer software are often next to each other. A message you intend to send to only one person, can accidentally end up being ‘spread to the world’ because you hit the wrong button by mistake.
One good thing e-mail allows is for comments to be widely and easily disseminated. This may help to keep some people honest because their comments can so easily be put into a public forum.
[i]Of course splits are viewed from two sides. Those on the Charismatic side blame the splits on the reactionary or traditional outlook of non-Charismatics or to the disobedience of those who resist the working of the Holy Spirit. Some opposition may indeed be simply reaction, or based on tradition denominational views. Such responses frustrate me as much as anyone. More serious is the charge of resisting the Holy Spirit. One `prophecy’ that was given to my church some years before the split was of a vision that had been seen. `1984 – July. As I was praying recently about the life of the Church I saw a picture of a river flowing around an island. It came very clearly that the flowing river was the work of God in Porirua while the island represented those who were not prepared to move with the flow of what the Lord wanted to do. The work of God would not be hindered but in a sense move out and around them, thus bypassing them. I felt really encouraged by the fact the (that? RM) God’s work would go on, but sad that some would be left stationary in the middle of it watching it move around them.’ This statement involves some pretty heavy intimidation and manipulation and is representative of types of statements made over a number of years.
Those of the non-Charismatic side see those of Charismatic persuasion introducing heresy into the church. As a bit of light relief during the tension of those days, I proposed an alternative understanding of the above prophecy. The river was the flood of error coming into the church. The island represented those who where standing firm against the flow and resisting it!
For an historical sketch and analysis of the type of turmoil that can happen, see `Tongues Must Cease: The Brethren and the Charismatic Movement in New Zealand, by Peter Lineham, Journal of the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship, 1982. Lineham’s article begins, `In the nineteen-sixties many churches throughout the western world were deeply affected by the Charismatic Movement. Nowhere was the impact larger than in New Zealand, and in no church in New Zealand at the time were the consequences so extensive, so divisive or so early than they were in the Open Brethren assemblies. The aim of this paper is to investigate the reasons for this.’ Lineham is now Professor of History at Massey University, Auckland Campus New Zealand.
[ii]I was visited by two Mormons. One of them got very angry and aggressive when I pointed him to a number of verses in Isaiah 40 through 50. He wanted to leave so put out his hand for me to shake and said they had to go. I told him I would not shake his hand because he was a heretic. While I believe all Mormons are heretics, I would not generally call them that to their face. However when their heresy is as blatantly and aggressively put as it was that day, I think it is justified.
[iii]For example `…you cows of Bashan…’ Amos 4v1. The whole of Ezekiel 23 is descriptive as is v20. `There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.’
[iv]Psychologists, even so-called `Christian’ psychologists, would have a field day in this sort of situation. Any `victims’ would no doubt be set up for extended counseling sessions to free them from the hurts incurred – and some of their money. For an excellent critique of `Christian’ Psychology’s redefining of Biblical terms and human problems and its reliance on humanistic methodologies rather than the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit, see Christian Psychology’s War on God’s Word: The Victimization of the Believer, by Jim Owen, EastGate Publishers, (4137 Primavera Rd, Santa Barbara, CA 93110) 1993. EastGate have also published four books by Martin and Deidre Bobgan which highlight these same disturbing trends. The Bobgan’s concern is over the `integration’ of Biblical Christianity with Psychology and critique in these books, Dr Gary Collins, Dr Larry Crabb, Dr Paul Meier, Dr Frank Minirth, Dr James Dobson and the 12 Step programs that are proliferating in evangelical circles. The authors are extremely careful to define what aspects of psychology they are critiquing, but in spite if this, the commitment of many to the psychological way has produced some highly emotional responses to their work.
[v] See Reader’s Digest, December 1992, ‘Miracle at Sea’, p134.
[vi]Yet having said that and having said it quite strongly, there is a sense in which individuals unrelated to a situation may bear significant responsibility – though not in ways generally thought of. For example, in New Zealand, there has been a huge increase in crimes of all sorts over the past few years with sex crimes going through the roof. What is the cause? The answers range from low self-esteem, to too much junk food, to tight nappies as kids, to an education system that favours one group and not another etc etc. Nobody in authority seems to want to put a stop to the pornography that is flooding into the country. The freedom of adults to view such material must be maintained at all cost. Alcohol is linked without question to one third of road deaths and the majority of violent situations, and yet again, the freedom to drink must be maintained at all cost.
New Zealand has a very strong Christian heritage. Huge numbers of the indigenous people, the Maori, were converted to Christianity through very effective mission work during the years from about 1820 through 1840. Most of the European settlers were from England and brought a Christianised culture with them. These two streams established `Christian’ values in the country and produced the safely and security that have characterized it, in spite of the serious injustices that occurred, particularly in regards to land acquisition on the part of the settlers. New Zealand, in recent years however, has become one of the most secularized countries in the modern world.
Following Charles Darwin, atheism moved, in western culture, from the realm of private opinion into the realm of public fact – and belief in God as Creator traveled the opposite direction. Consequently transcendent values were lost. Philosophers led the way but now the idea that there are no absolute values is entrenched in the culture. Man has become the new god and selects the values that suit him. It is not at all surprising if some of these new gods choose to act in ways that are contrary to what others find acceptable. Man, personified in the State, becomes the most powerful of the new Gods. By far the majority of the Parliamentarians in New Zealand have this philosophy. The justice system no longer has any connection to real justice, that is a standard communicated by the Creator to his creatures. Now justice is constantly in flux and is evolving with the community.
Biblically, all sin and crime is primarily against God and secondly against the particular individual/s wronged. But with the true God removed, the new substitute god became the primary victim in crime and so crime is responded to in this light. It all goes together to form the complex that is our present society. Who bears the responsibility for the violence in it? Of course the individuals who commit the violence. However the God rejecting people who are in the culturally formative areas of the culture also share some responsibility.
– the Parliamentarians and Judges, who instead of carrying out their primary God ordained role of suppressing the external expression of evil, rather use their position of power to further their own ends or their own ungodly agendas and values,
– the teachers teaching evolution and its denial of God in the schools
– the news media promoting anti-God values and sensationalizing evil.
But there are also the churches. Many have given away the revelation of God and speak like warmed over Marxists, and many others content themselves with personal piety and do not have God’s word to speak to the judicial system or to the various spheres of government.
All of these weave together the fabric of a culture that denies God, exalts man, and because of the denial of transcendent values, fudges on evil – many times rewarding evil and suppressing the good. These all bear responsibility for creating the climate which allows evil, in all its forms, to flourish.
Clearly the Old Testament prophets did not just speak to the individual who did violent and dishonest things, but also to the leaders who did the same but perhaps in more sophisticated and subtle ways. God’s judgment eventually fell on the people as a whole for their rejection of him and for what they had done to entrench rebellion against God in the culture. As Jer 5:31. says, `The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? ‘
[vii]There is a shade of meaning for the word `forgive’ which has been missed by many. As a result the idea of extending forgiveness when there has been no confession or repentance has become widespread. The shade of meaning I am referring to comes through in two situations. Firstly when Israel was on the borders of the Promised Land. The twelve spies had been sent to spy out the land and had returned with their report. `A marvelous land with fantastically fertile soil – but there are giants there’. The people, almost without exception, were petrified and wept and wailed all night. In the morning they talked of going back to Egypt, and when Joshua and Caleb remonstrated with them, the whole assembly talked of stoning them.
The Lord was so angry with the nation that he said he would destroy them on the spot. Moses prayed to the Lord and asked him to forgive the peoples rebellion and the Lord said he would. However he said not one of the people who saw his wonders in Egypt and now had rebelled against him would see the promised land. They would all die in the desert. Here forgiveness is not forgiveness of sin but unmerited grace extended to people who were under sentence of death. They were still rebels. They had not repented, but they would have an extension of their life. The Lord’s words as he was being nailed to the cross had a similar meaning and had a similar result. He said,
`Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’,
Here was the most appalling crime in all history being carried out. God would have been quite justified in stepping in and wiping out the Jewish nation and their Roman collaborators. Yet from the cross came a stay of execution. Grace extends their life for a while. However it was only for a little while as the execution that brought God’s judgment on Israel’s rebellion eventually came 35 years later. Israel’s national life came to end in the holocaust that was the siege of Jerusalem. Rome’s execution was delayed for several centuries. They had not had forgiveness offered to them repeatedly as Israel had. Eventually Rome showed, by its persecution of Christ’s people, that it sided with Israel in its rebellion. Rome was thus executed as well.
[viii]I heard the leader of the Full Gospel Businessman’s Association in South Africa interviewed on new Zealand’s Radio Rhema some time ago. He waxed eloquent about the new unity that was going to come to Christians independent of the church and independent of doctrine. It was going to be a unity in Jesus. His ideas were clearly heretical but he wasn’t pulled up at all. We cannot live independent of doctrine. The ideas we have about anything, even Jesus, constitute doctrine. Who was Jesus? What has he done? What is he going to do? How does he want us to follow him? Why should we follow him? etc etc. The answers to these sorts of questions expose our doctrine of Jesus. Contra the aforementioned leader, Paul said to Titus, `You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.’ (Titus 2v1)
[ix]People were saved, prior to the cross, on the basis of the death of Christ yet future. We are saved on the basis of the death of Christ in the past. There has never been salvation at any time in human history except on the basis of the death of Christ.
[x]It is widely held in Christian circles that we are in `the last days’ and that Christ’s return is imminent. It may be. However this has been maintained with varying degrees of fervency at many earlier times. For example see Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse, William and Heinemann, 1935, p62-64, 85-87, 284-285. In the mid 1800’s, Gosse’s parents spent huge amounts of time studying Bible prophecy and were convinced that Christ would return in their life time. During the 1960’s, many folks had the Lord’s return all worked out. Israel re-established 1948. 1948 + one generation (40 years) = 1988 for the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. 1988 less 7 years for Daniel’s 70th week = 1981. Therefore the Lord was coming prior to 1981. Simple as that! I understand somebody made a great deal of money through writing a book called, `88 reasons why Christ is coming back in 1988′. A New Zealander, George Curle, has come up with a new date which puts everything back by around 30-40 years. He says God gave him the key to make his calculations show this. Charismatics are having visions etc which purport to show the Lord is almost on the way. See Robert Baxter’s testimony in Appendix 4. Also Jack Hayford’s vision referred to in an earlier footnote. Will we ever learn? In response to these sort of claims, some quote the Lord when he says in Matthew 24v36, `no man knows the day nor the hour’ of his coming. They use this verse to argue dates should not be set. I am inclined towards the view that Matt 24 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and his coming which is referred to there as being his coming in Judgment on Israel of that time, not to do some distant return. If this is the case, then this statement really should not be used as an argument against setting dates for a future return. Setting dates is just plain foolish. I am not in anyway denying that the Lord will return in the future. I’m just not sure that we can be sure when.
[xi]Jude v8. `In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. 9. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” 10. Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals – these are the very things that destroy them.’
[xii] Churches have different sorts of authority structures, some more, and some less, rigid. Authority structures can easily be ‘power structures’ and used for personal gain. I think we need to have structures which do not concentrate power and so avoids its misuse.
[xiii]To let readers in briefly on the end of this part of the story, the total eldership ended up leaving. This introduced a raft of new and different problems as can be imagined. (The whole story has not ended. Unbelievably, to this day – something like 12 years later – we have not as a church community talked about what caused the split!)