Tag Archives: conflict

Preacher in the Hands of an Angry Church

by Chris Armstrong
Jonathan Edwards’s church kicked him out after 23 years of ministry, but the crisis proved his greatness was not merely intellectual.
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As messy dismissals of ministers go, the 1750 ejection of Jonathan Edwards by his Northampton congregation was among the messiest. The fact that it involved the greatest theologian in American history—the central figure of the Great Awakening—is almost beside the point. The fact that it took place in a New England fast moving from theocratic “city on a hill” to democratic home of liberty is more relevant.

But another aspect is worth a closer look: Friends and enemies alike agreed that in the long, degenerating discontent, Edwards continued to love and pray for—or at least tolerate and refrain from attacking—his people, even when they bared their fangs.

Salary controversies and power struggles marked his ministry during the 1740s. In the infamous “bad book” episode of 1744, some teen boys in the church distributed a midwife’s manual, using it to taunt and make suggestive comments in front of girls. When the culprits were summoned before the church, their response, according to documents of the proceedings, was “contemptuous … toward the authority of this Church.”

Edwards chose to read before the church a list containing, indiscriminately, the names of both the young distributors as well as the purported witnesses. Some parents were outraged at Edwards.

Another issue was Edwards’s personality and style as a minister. At the outset of his ministry at Northampton, for example, he decided that he would not pay the customary regular visits to his congregants, but would rather come to their side only when called in cases of sickness or other emergency. This made him seem, to some in the church, cold and distant.

An Edwards “disciple,” Samuel Hopkins, later wrote that this practice was not due to lack of affection and concern for his people: “For their good he was always writing, contriving, labouring; for them he had poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven.”

Rather, Edwards had made a clear-eyed assessment of his own gifts and decided that he was unable to match the graceful gregariousness of those ministers who had a “knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and … undesigned way.”

Thus he would “do the greatest good to souls … by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair.”

Edwards’s ministry might yet have endured, however, were it not for the death of his uncle, Colonel John Stoddard, in 1748. Born in 1682, 21 years before Edwards, the colonel had built a friendship with his nephew. A sharp thinker, a county judge, and a savvy politician, John was a militia colonel who had become commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts western frontier by 1744. Stoddard wore—at least in the secular sphere—the mantle of his father and Edwards’s grandfather, “pope” of the Connecticut Valley, Solomon Stoddard.

Edwards found himself often leaning on his uncle’s influence to navigate the affairs of the church. Thus when Stoddard died, Edwards lost not only an uncle but a powerful ally and confidante.

As Iain Murray put it in his biography of Edwards: “There would be no open criticism of Edwards as long as Stoddard sat appreciatively in his pew beneath the pulpit in the meeting-house Sunday by Sunday.” Once the colonel was gone, however, that changed dramatically.

Stoddard’s heir-apparent as Hampshire County’s leading figure was Edwards’s cousin Israel Williams, a Harvard graduate, imperious in manner and implacably set against Edwards. In his early nineteenth-century biography, descendant S. E. Dwight named Israel and several others of the Williams clan as having “religious sentiments [that] differed widely from” those of Edwards. Their opposition soon became “a settled and personal hostility.” Williams served as counselor and ringleader to Edwards’s opponents. Joining this opposition were another cousin, Joseph Hawley Jr., 21 years Edwards’s junior.

Visible saints, hidden agendas
The same year John Stoddard died, an event finally pushed the hostile faction into open revolt.

For years, Edwards had been uncomfortable with the lenient policy on membership and communion set by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s predecessor at Northampton. Stoddard had allowed almost anyone to join and to partake, hoping that membership and communion might encourage true conversion. In 1748, Edwards changed the policy and told an applicant for church membership that he must first make a public “profession of godliness.”

Thus Edwards rejected the “Halfway Covenant”—the longstanding compromise of the Puritans who had, generations after planting their religious colonies, found their church membership dwindling. That compromise had reversed the traditional Puritan requirement that new church members be “visible saints,” godly in word and deed.

When the congregation saw that Edwards intended to return to the earlier, stricter Puritan position, demanding not only a profession of faith, but also evidence of repentance and holiness, a firestorm arose. Many of the church’s leading members felt Edwards’s innovation was a direct threat.

Two revivals had produced many converts, but, as biographer Patricia Tracy put it, “Men and women who had been recognized as visible saints in Northampton still wallowed in clandestine immorality and flagrant pride.”

Though Edwards knew, as he notes in his letters, that he was likely to lose his pastorate as a result, he stuck to his principles.

A council of the congregation put a moratorium on new memberships until the issue of criteria could be resolved. Edwards told them he planned to preach on his reasons for changing the policy. They forbade him to do so. Edwards began to write a book on the matter. Few read it, and too late to do much good.

In 1750, a council was called to consider whether the congregation would dismiss its minister. No one doubted what the conclusion would be.

Edwards’s friend David Hall noted in his diary the minister’s reaction when on June 22, 1750, the council handed down its decision:

“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good … even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission.”

46 and unemployed
Edwards wrote that he now found himself a 46-year-old ex-minister “fitted for no other business but study,” with a large family to provide for. Although he knew “we are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us,” he fretted over his situation in letters to friends. Yet neither the distressing conditions nor the continuing antagonism of his opponents drew him out to open attack.

Remarkably (and partly because of financial need), Edwards agreed to continue preaching at the church while they searched for a replacement. But his Farewell Sermon also indicates he acted out of continued concern for the flock. He continued through mid-November, despite the Town maliciously barring him, a month after his dismissal, from using its common grazing land.

Finally in December 1750, after an anxious autumn during which he had even considered removing his entire family to Scotland to accept an invitation there, Edwards accepted a charge in Massachusetts’s “wild west,” the Indian town of Stockbridge. There he would labor the rest of his life, pursue his theological thinking to its most brilliant heights, and create one of the most enduring missionary biographies of all time, the life story of his young friend David Brainerd.

Belated praise
In 1760, his former enemy, cousin Joseph Hawley, wrote to Edwards’s friend David Hall, confessing that “vast pride, self-sufficiency, ambition, and vanity” had animated his leadership in the “melancholy contention” with Edwards. He repented of his earlier failure to render the respect due Edwards as a “most able, diligent and faithful pastor.”

Hawley concluded, “I am most sorely sensible that nothing but that infinite grace and mercy which saved some of the betrayers and murderers of our blessed Lord, and the persecutors of his martyrs, can pardon me; in which alone I hope for pardon, for the sake of Christ, whose blood, blessed by God, cleanseth from all sin.”

On June 22, 1900, exactly 150 years after Edwards’s dismissal, a group gathered at the First Church in Northampton to unveil a bronze memorial.

H. Norman Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at Smith College and chairman of the memorial committee, characterized Edwards’s ejection as “a public rejection and banishment” that remained “a source of reproach to his church and people.” He noted the “hatred, malice, and uncharitableness which characterized the opposition to him,” for which, to Gardiner, no apology either contemporary or modern could atone.

Edwards would have disagreed, arguing instead that even such deeply wounding actions as the aggravated and wrongful dismissal of a pastor from his pulpit of 23 years are not unforgivable. In that understanding, as in so much else, Edwards was far ahead both of his enemies and of many of us today.

2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 52

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Challenging the Church Monster

This book by Douglas J. Bixby exposes those spiritual terrorists in the church that often wreak havoc and attack church servants and leadership.  Here are some excerpts for you:

 

Jesus Christ is the great unifier, and yet it is only in the midst of diversity that our unity in Christ means anything.   P. 23

Congregations fear change, and when systems are not in place to guard against excessive change, people take it upon themselves to ensure it does not happen at all.  This is why very little trust develops within these systems and why very little gets accomplished despite all the time and energy people put into their churches.  Lay leaders and pastors are left frustrated, because they end up bearing a lot of responsibility without being given any real authority.  Momentum rarely develops, and individual leaders rarely feel like they are having an impact.  Most feel they are simply spinning their wheels. P. 29

In The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, writes, “I’ve always loved Elton Trueblood’s name for the church: ‘The Company of the Committed.’  It would be wonderful if every church was known for the commitment of its members.  Unfortunately, churches are often held together by committees rather than commitment.” P. 35 

In his book The Once and Future Church, Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute, talks about how the church needs to change to be prepared to do ministry in our changing world.  Speaking about local congregations, Mead writes, “It is harder and harder to maintain the congregational structure and systems that have served so many generations so well.”

However, Mead continues, “In this climate, many respond by trying harder and harder to do the old thing better.  They try to turn the clock back to the familiar dream of the Christendom Paradigm, working to resurrect an antiquarian institution.”

Churches need to find new ways to function in an age where time is valued almost as much as money.  Most people today are not so emotionally sick that we need to be afraid of them, but most people are so busy that we do need to fear misusing their time and energy. P. 51

Canon reveals how certain people can ruin the Rules of Order for everyone else in a group.  He writes, “One of the worst mistakes a member can make is to challenge the Chair simply because a rule is not being followed with technical precision, that is, when the error does not in fact affect the substance or the fairness of the business at hand.  This mistake is most often made by a member who is well schooled in parliamentary procedure and wishes to demonstrate this skill to the assembly.”    Pp. 85-86

Robert Webber, president of the Institute for Worship Studies, writes in his book, Planning Blended Worship,   “Good worship creates community, evangelical warmth, hospitality to outsiders, inclusion of cultural diversity, leadership roles for men and women, intergenerational involvement, personal and community formation, healing, reconciliation, and other aspects of pastoral care.  Because worship is itself an act of witness, it is the door to church growth, to missions and evangelism, and to issues of social justice.  Worship now stands at the center of the Church’s life and mission in the world.     p. 107

Bixby. Challenging the Church Monster. Wipf & Stock Publishers; 2007.

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Conflict and the Pastor (no big surprise)

Let’s face it, as Christian ministers there are times when we face people who tend to thrive on conflict. These people seem to be God’s appointed thorn in our side; so much so that we can empathize with Irvin S. Cobb: “I’ve just learned about his illness.  Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.”  Or worse, with Mark Twain’s comment about his antagonist, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

In Strike the Shepherd, Ken Sande presented significant and  “sobering statistics:

  • 23 percent of all current pastors in the United States have been fired or forced to resign in the past.
  • 45 percent of the pastors who were fired in one denomination left ministry altogether.
  • 34 percent of all pastors presently serve congregations that forced their previous pastor to resign.
  • The average pastoral career lasts only fourteen years – less than half of what it was not long ago.
  • 24 percent of the churches in one survey reported conflict in the previous five years that was serious enough to have a lasting impact on congregational life.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their assignments every month in the United States because of conflict, burnout, or moral failure.

This article went on to state that surveys “reveal that the most common causes for forced exits include:

  • The church is already conflicted when the pastor arrives
  • A lack of unity and the presence of factions in the church
  • Conflicting visions for the church
  • A church’s resistance to change
  • Power and control struggles
  • Personality conflicts
  • Poor people skills on the part of the pastor
  • Conflict over leadership styles
  • Dissatisfaction with the pastor’s performance
  • Theological differences.

All of these reasons for forced exits can be summarized in one word: conflict. When a pastor is forced out of ministry, it is usually because he has been unsuccessful at resolving differences with other people in his church” (The Perfect Pastor? pp. 27-28).

I feel so miserable without you…it’s almost like having you here. – Stephen Bishop.

Conflict is one of those things that all leaders face and endure. If you don’t want conflict, don’t be a leader, especially a minister of Jesus Christ.  However, it is encouraging to know that you and I are not alone in this matter.  Even the “giants” of the faith had their fair share. For example:

Chrysostom – the ancient Greek father who was taken by the emperor’s troops and forced to accept the bishop’s seat in Constantinople.  After years of faithful service to God and God’s people he was exiled where he died a broken and ailing man.

Martin Luther – fought with the Romanists, fought with his fellow Reformers, fought with the prince, fought with his countrymen, fought with his congregation, and fought with his wife, and even fought with the devil.

John Wesley – also fought with his own fellow ministers, and had a terrible falling out with his once close friend, George Whitefield.  Perhaps the lesser known but greatest conflict was with his nagging wife with whom he could barely get along.

Jonathan Edwards – after years of faithful service to a church for what would be considered a lifetime in today’s standard of ministry, he was forced out of his church.

Spurgeon – endured fiery criticisms from both well-meaning fellow pastors and wicked members in his congregation.  He was well-known for his pithy and sharp comebacks to vocal critics.

A young pastor was making farewell visits to his congregation before moving to another church. Visiting a homebound member, whom he had called on regularly, the pastor carefully explained why he was leaving.  The woman sighed deeply and said, “Well, we’ll never have another minister as good as you’ve been.” The young man blushed, scuffing his feet along the floor.  “Oh, I’m sure your next pastor will be excellent.” The woman shook her head with determination, “You don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve been here through five pastors and each one has been worse than the last. (Doug Scott, Radnor, PA. The Christian Reader, “Lite Fare” in PreachingToday.com, 2004).

The average pastor spends 20% of his time addressing church conflict.

Ultimately, all conflict is a spiritual matter.  The root cause is the broken relationship with God which the Bible defines as sin. It began in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.  They sought to do without God in all respects.  They wanted autonomy, to interpret the world without reference to God, and to blame God, the environment and the circumstances (Jer. 17:9; Isa. 53:6; Prov. 13:10). To make the point, Adam and Eve’s son Cain was at odds with his brother.  H. B. London reminds us it was really a spiritual matter that  “Cain had a problem with God, but he took it out on his brother.”

The second thing we can be sure of is that conflict is due to a violation of loving God and loving others as myself.  Additionally, conflict comes about because of idolatry, that is, worshiping ourselves, our things, our agendas, our world more than our God. Anyone who violates our pursuit of what we want through our own idols will most often be met with conflict.

Fourthly, because of our sinful condition, misunderstandings, lack of judgment or all out war can take place. Sometimes genuine disagreements, if not handled rightly, can escalate into serious conflict. For example, there was the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over John-Mark and a philosophy of ministry. You can read about it in the biblical book of Acts. The New Testament also highlights the sad, but seemingly inevitable clashes between people over such things as doctrine (Acts 15:1-5) and personal matters (Philippians 4:2-9).

Having said all this, we must understand that not all conflict is evil under such circumstances.  Sometimes conflict provides an opportunity to glorify God, to grow like Christ or to serve others better.  Unresolved conflict, on the other hand, is almost always an issue of attitude, not of the problem itself.

The story of the Bible is one of major conflict between humanity and God. Hence the appearance that the Bible, especially the Old Testament is “nothing but a bunch of stories of battles and wars.” The accounts of those conflicts between people, families, tribes, nations, people and kings, and kings against kings only spotlight the underlying cause of the war between God and humankind. However, the story-line superseding such wickedness is that of God’s intervention and actions to redeem and reconcile his enemies back to himself.  He made peace with mankind through Jesus Christ, and those who believe this and place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ receive and enjoy this peace.

So, why then the conflict in churches and especially with the people of God and the ministers of God? It’s as I stated above – all conflict is a spiritual matter.  While God has made peace with people (believers in Jesus), these people are not yet at complete peace in their hearts with God, and therefore they end up conflicted with others, particularly with representatives of God or leaders of God’s church.

Sad as it may be, don’t be surprised if you are in church leadership and are confronted with relational conflicts. Further, don’t be surprised to see people and pastors in conflict.

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Conflict in the Church

I hate conflict and despise dealing with it.  Nevertheless, conflict is inherent in the world and even within the context of the local church. Conflict is unavoidable.  Why?

All conflict is ultimately a spiritual matter.   The root cause is the broken relationship we all have with God.  This dates back to the sin of Adam in Eden’s garden.  Adam and Eve sought to do without God in all respects.  They wanted autonomy from God but also equality with God.  They wanted to interpret their world without reference to him and establish a world based upon their own image.  This is a keynote feature of perfectionism, the counterfeit to biblical perfection.

Adam and Eve also wanted to blame God’s environment or their circumstances or other people.  Adam blamed his wife for his sin, Eve blamed the serpent, and so forth.  All of these conflicted dynamics are caused by sin; all are caused by breaking God’s perfect standards and falling short of God’s glory (Jer. 17:9; Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

Conflict was immediately displayed in Cain’s treatment of his brother Abel.  We learn from the Bible that Cain’s real problem was his resentment toward God, so he took it out on his brother.  In a seminary class, Dr. Robert D. Stuart expressed a simple but poignant biblical truth – the source of interpersonal conflicts is conflict with God.  When people are angry at God for whatever the reason, they express that anger toward others.  Conflict is also due to a violation of the very command by God to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Disagreements do not necessarily have to descend into serious conflicts.  Paul and Barnabas disagreed about John-Mark’s usefulness in ministry.  The Apostles disagreed on important doctrinal matters in Acts 15.  Paul had a severe, but important, disagreement with Peter; and Paul urged Euodia and Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord (Phil. 4:2-9).   Therefore, not all conflict is evil.  It provides opportunities to glorify God, to grow in Christ or to serve others.   However, unresolved conflict is almost always more an issue of attitude toward one another than it is about the original problem itself.

Lessons from Revelation’s seven churches (chapters 1-3), reveal to us that unresolved matters between a local church and God were often manifested through church life.  In five of the seven churches God identifies profound insights into ways a church can destroy its ministry or its life.  For example, from Ephesus we learn that a lack of biblical truth, or a failure to guard orthodoxy, or a distortion of Christ’s truth can kill a church.  But guarding truth without love will also do the same.  The church of Pergamum teaches us that a lack of holiness can destroy a church, while from Thyatira we learn that an unwillingness to address sin or to discipline those who need it can kill a church.  So can a lack of faithfulness to the person and message of Christ, or a lack of unity centered upon Christ in truth and love.

The last church, Laodicea, instructs us that you can kill a church when you exclude Christ.  When Jesus is not allowed to enter and commune with the local church it will die. Whether it will simply implode, fall apart or continue to bustle with activity, if it is without Christ it dies.  When a church is characteristically man-centered as opposed to being Christocentric it will die spiritually.  This church was self-deceived like a number of the others are today.  They believed they had a great thing going.  They were rich, self-sufficient and apparently had a healing ministry.  They were man-centered, yet they excluded Christ from the heart of the church.

The church in Corinth was man-centered and acted fleshly, that is like non-believers.  Dr. Richard Ganz describes and defines the twenty different man-centered conflicts that almost destroyed that church in his insightful book, The Twenty Controversies That Nearly Killed the Church (2003).

The Holy Spirit speaks to the Church through many biblical passages about sinful conflict. James narrows it down and succinctly states: Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

What are these desires that are really idols of our hearts?  When we put ourselves, our interests, our longings and our expectations in place of God we go to battle.  When anything stands in the way of our self-erected idols, it will suffer the brunt of our proud wrath, revealed through anger, frustration, depression, bitterness, fighting or fleeing, and conflict.  When we interpret our lives and the local church with little reference to the Lord and try to establish our lives and local church based upon our own image, we guarantee sinful strife. When I have idols in my heart which are constantly being offended I have respond sinfully.  What idols?  Pride, the desire to be liked, admired and appreciated, the desire to be right all the time, the desire to take charge, to force my agenda on others, you know, things like that. Sinful responses always do damage, whether to our own souls or our relationships with others.

Many of us  know the stories of famous pastors:  Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards and Spurgeon who all had conflicts with people in and out of the church. Larry J. Michael, reflecting upon Spurgeon’s life and ministry wrote:

Any leader, who is faithful to his calling, sooner or later will find himself embroiled in conflict or controversy.  Contrary to idealistic notions about leadership, even in the Christian context, leaders often discover resistance and reaction that they never anticipated when they accepted God’s call (2003, p. 163).

So, you are not alone, and no church is exempt from dealing with conflict. Therefore, no one in the church should be surprised when it happens.

In 1997, John Maxwell did a seminar on the subject of conflict in the church.  In the seminar Maxwell identified several cycles of conflict.  At each stage there are ways to address the conflict, but if things are not addressed appropriately and the conflict continues, it develops into the next stage which makes it all the more difficult to resolve the problem or to reconcile.

The first cycle is when a problem is identified and needs to be fixed.  That may fold into the second cycle which is the repositioning stage.  Here people ask, “Who caused the problem?”  Here people tend to generalize things and focus their attention upon protecting their interests rather than upon solving the problem.  The level of trust drops and communication between the parties becomes cautious and unclear.

The third stage is the “rights stage” where people assume they are right and others are wrong.  At this stage people take sides and then label the others.  The focus now shifts upon winning the battle.  The tendency is  to overstate or distort the issue.  If resolution does not happen at this point then the fourth stage rolls in.  This is the removal stage where the intention of both parties is to get rid of the other people.  Reconciliation is not the objective. Indeed it is now out of the question.  The two camps are clearly identified and there is a leader for each side.

The final stage is the revenge stage where it is believed that someone must pay.  Even if there is a “winner” the one or the other or both parties are not happy with the results.  They become fanatics, believing it is wrong to stop the fighting.  Revenge is sought after.

By contrast, God provides ample instruction and correction on how to address conflict and reconcile. In fact, the entire Bible is the story of the conflict between man and God, and God’s effective, judicious, merciful, gracious way of reconciling his enemies to himself.

It is a true blessing when God gives you, me, and others the grace of humility and helps us, especially in church leadership, to clearly see that  desires for union and loving communion based based on Scripture are reasonable and very good.

London and Wiseman give wisdom here:

People can sincerely seek healing for brokenness, however, they’ll never find it if the Christian community around them isn’t committed to healing.  And that’s one of  the tragedies occurring in places where men and women have failed – the Christian  community doesn’t have the will to offer healthy healing.

Only when the Church commits itself to restorative ministry will men and women  stop acting in self-righteousness and, with the tenderness of Galatians 6:1, start being committed to getting every broken player back on the field again to serve the  Kingdom (1993, p. 103).

How do we deal with conflict wisely, righteously and love people the way Christ does? Briefly:  seek God and the grace to be humble and repentant.  Take the proverbial log (pride, idol, agenda, etc.) out of your own eye (Matt. 7:1ff). Pray for the opposition (Rom. 12).  Make a commitment to biblical reconciliation. Go to the other person to make things right (Matt. 5, 16, 18). Be willing to see their perspective, to confess your part in the conflict and to ask forgiveness for specific sin(s) you have committed. Forgive them, just as Christ has forgiven.

Not all conflict will be resolved and not all attempts at resolution and reconciliation are successful. Nevertheless, we are called to think God’s thoughts about all matters in life and to act accordingly – in a God-glorifying, Spirit-controlled, Christ-centered, people-reconciling way.

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Filed under Conflict and the Church, Pastor & Church Relationship, Pastoring, The Church, The Perfect Pastor? (book excerpts)

A Letter of Comfort to a Mistreated Family

This was an open letter to a family who were miserably treated by a pastor and elders of a church in which they were involved. It was an attempt to encourage them and to help them focus on Christ who never abuses rather than upon men who have abused them.
____________
Dear Friends, 

I am so sorry you have to go through yet another injury inflicted on your souls, again by those who are supposed to give aid and comfort.  No doubt it is emotionally painful.  All the more so since it comes at a time when you were seeking respite and help for the beatings and bruising you have had to endure for so long.

There really is no excuse for your pastor-in-law (as opposed to your pastor-in-grace) to have avoided you during your trials, neglected you during your absence, and betrayed you during your move.  What’s more, there really is no excuse for the pastor of the church where you had a happy anticipation of joining, to so quickly reject you (assuming by his actions he really did) on the basis of your pastor-in-law’s report.  I can only suspect that a negative report was given about you since the new minister went from a willing and ready spirit to receive you to advising you find another church, all within the space of a day or two.

Certainly, you haven’t been the simple or ideal Christian family who fits the box (whatever that is), who is without any hint of flaws, warts, trials or baggage. You have had far more than the average share.  Perhaps that is why some families don’t have such problems – you apparently got theirs?

Now, lest I come across as yet another self-righteous, judgmental pastor, I can say that I relate to those two ministers.  Looking back in time, I too have avoided, neglected and evidently betrayed people.  The neglect came from trying many times to help, but without any ounce of “success” I gave up.  I admit ignoring a few people who so easily monopolized my life and tried so hard to manipulate me and my family.  Ignoring them was a simple, but sinful way of handling them. I have since learned my lesson.  The ones I have been accused of rejecting or betraying are those to whom I boldly spoke the truth (at least what I believed was truthful) and they took offense.  They’ve never tried to clarify what was said, never forgiven me, and have never been willing to reconcile.  Very sad.

From a pastor’s viewpoint, I understand how easy it is to avoid people who aren’t free from trouble and trials.  I’d rather not deal with other people’s baggage.  I mean, some of them have baggage over the 50-pound limit.  Some of them have lots of heavy bags. Lots and lots of bags. And I have enough of my own baggage.   So, I can relate to wanting a church filled with holy angels who will neatly fit into my image of a perfect, peaceful, problem-free church.

However, the fact of the matter is those of us who are called to minister in the name of Jesus Christ are called to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.  I can recall years ago a pastor, who was a brilliant, earthy, former blue-collar worker, complaining that too many of his fellow pastors never got dirty. No rough hands, tough skin or dirt under their nails.  Of course, he was also speaking metaphorically.  He was right.  But that’s the nature of our work.

We ministers of the Gospel are called to get into the trenches like soldiers (Phil 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3-4), down and dirty  like farmers (2 Tim. 2:6), tough and smelly like fishermen, sore and exhausted like athletes (1 Cor. 9:24-25; Phil 3:14; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:7-8; Heb. 12:1), and humiliated and abused like servants (Matt. 20:27; Jn. 10:11, 15; Luke 10:34, 35).Those are biblical descriptions, and they run contrary to contemporary descriptions and models of ministers (CEOs, coaches, university professors.  I’m afraid we have adopted worldly portraits and exchanged them for God’s models all to the detriment and injury of God’s people.

We are called to apply heavenly truth to life’s dirty, earthy issues through the means of the good news of Christ.  As pastors we are called to be gentle (2 Tim. 2:24-26), patient (1 Tim. 3:3), and marked by the fruit of God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24; Eph. 5:9), just like Christ.  Think about him – no doubt he was patient with his stubborn, ignorant, at times belligerent, messed-up disciples.  He was pure and yet patient and gentle with the lowly scum of the world (the prostitutes, beggars, infirm, and handicapped).  He was patient and kind with those who received so much from him but who were so ungrateful.  He was sympathetic and a great help to those in need.

Christ has redeemed, gifted and called us elders and pastors to be servants to God’s people.  Servants filled with the kind of humility that is not always  self-serving or rewarding (Luke 14:10; Rom. 12:1-3, 10, 16:  1 Cor. 10:31-33; Titus 1:7; Jas. 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:5), just like the Servant Jesus (Phil. 2:3).  And just like Jesus we are called, gifted and empowered to practice and model true hospitality (lover of strangers) which goes above and beyond loving our neighbors as ourselves (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8, 9; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9).  Our calling is to genuinely love others, especially those of the household of faith (1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:25; 1 Thess. 2:7-8).  Like it or not we must be gracious, merciful (Matt. 25; 1 Cor. 12:28) and proactively, unquestionably kind (Matt. 11:29; Acts 24:4; 2 Cor. 10:1; 1 Thess. 2:7).  What’s more, God does not give us a choice about who it is with whom we are to be loving, merciful and kind.

Jesus was lowly, meek and gentle.  All believers in Christ should also be lowly, meek and gentle, but particularly ministers.  As brought out in the book, The Perfect Pastor?, “Gentleness, a very important feature in a godly leader, is the quality of being gracious, kind, mild, patient and reasonable.  A gentle person is caring, considerate and has an ability to sympathize (Rom. 15:1; 1 Pet. 4:8).  The gentle one shows carefulness in choosing words and expressions so as not to unnecessarily offend (Gal. 6:1)” (p. 352).

In the book’s Appendix F, which is a self-examination of godly character, the potential deacon, elder, pastor, and other church leaders are encouraged to test themselves.  One of the questions probes whether, “I reflect care, affection and good-will toward others (2 Cor. 10:1; 1 Thess. 2; Eph. 4:2)”  (p. 352).  The implication from the Bible is that must I do so, not only with those who have it all together, or who are apparently absent any challenges or “issues,” or only when I feel like it (which admittedly is rare).  I or we are to reflect care, affection and good-will toward others as gentle leaders – always! Especially toward those who need it the most!

This is the very nature of the redemptive work of Christ.  He came to save sinners, not saints. He came for the infirm, not the healthy; the poor, not the self-sustaining rich; the prodigal, not the pious.  His grace is extended to the chief of sinners, for grace abounds more where sin seems to flourish.  As ministers we must never forget that.  But, dear friends, it appears that some ministers have indeed forgotten just that.

Certainly, when I reflect on what is required of me as a godly man and pastor in character and action, I too fall far short.  Yet, these are the qualities of godliness and ministry this unique calling requires.  If I, or any other person who has taken on the yoke of shepherd ministry, refuses to press toward these high and heavenly goals and refuses to practice them, then we need to step down and step away from the office called the pastorate.  May God daily spare me of my pride and keep me from falling into such pious worldliness.  May the Lord grant to such men the grace of repentance to change and become more like our Master who faithfully served us.

I am so sorry that you have had to endure men in the name of Christ, but do not minister in the spirit of Christ.  Frankly, they have failed you.  Their actions, their sins, mostly of omission, say quite a bit about their character and philosophy of ministry.  But in this sense, be encouraged that God has used this “rejection” of you as a grace to spare you of their miserable orthopraxy, horrible hypocrisy and intolerable misdeeds.

With affection;

Don

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Preacher in the Hands of an Angry Church

Jonathan Edwards’s church kicked him out after 23 years of ministry, but the crisis proved his greatness was not merely intellectual.
by Chris Armstrong

As messy dismissals of ministers go, the 1750 ejection of Jonathan Edwards by his Northampton congregation was among the messiest. The fact that it involved the greatest theologian in American history—the central figure of the Great Awakening—is almost beside the point. The fact that it took place in a New England fast moving from theocratic “city on a hill” to democratic home of liberty is more relevant.

But another aspect is worth a closer look: Friends and enemies alike agreed that in the long, degenerating discontent, Edwards continued to love and pray for—or at least tolerate and refrain from attacking—his people, even when they bared their fangs.

Salary controversies and power struggles marked his ministry during the 1740s. In the infamous “bad book” episode of 1744, some teen boys in the church distributed a midwife’s manual, using it to taunt and make suggestive comments in front of girls. When the culprits were summoned before the church, their response, according to documents of the proceedings, was “contemptuous … toward the authority of this Church.”

Edwards chose to read before the church a list containing, indiscriminately, the names of both the young distributors as well as the purported witnesses. Some parents were outraged at Edwards.

Another issue was Edwards’s personality and style as a minister. At the outset of his ministry at Northampton, for example, he decided that he would not pay the customary regular visits to his congregants, but would rather come to their side only when called in cases of sickness or other emergency. This made him seem, to some in the church, cold and distant.

An Edwards “disciple,” Samuel Hopkins, later wrote that this practice was not due to lack of affection and concern for his people: “For their good he was always writing, contriving, labouring; for them he had poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven.”

Rather, Edwards had made a clear-eyed assessment of his own gifts and decided that he was unable to match the graceful gregariousness of those ministers who had a “knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and … undesigned way.”

Thus he would “do the greatest good to souls … by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair.”

Edwards’s ministry might yet have endured, however, were it not for the death of his uncle, Colonel John Stoddard, in 1748. Born in 1682, 21 years before Edwards, the colonel had built a friendship with his nephew. A sharp thinker, a county judge, and a savvy politician, John was a militia colonel who had become commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts western frontier by 1744. Stoddard wore—at least in the secular sphere—the mantle of his father and Edwards’s grandfather, “pope” of the Connecticut Valley, Solomon Stoddard.

Edwards found himself often leaning on his uncle’s influence to navigate the affairs of the church. Thus when Stoddard died, Edwards lost not only an uncle but a powerful ally and confidante.

As Iain Murray put it in his biography of Edwards: “There would be no open criticism of Edwards as long as Stoddard sat appreciatively in his pew beneath the pulpit in the meeting-house Sunday by Sunday.” Once the colonel was gone, however, that changed dramatically.

Stoddard’s heir-apparent as Hampshire County’s leading figure was Edwards’s cousin Israel Williams, a Harvard graduate, imperious in manner and implacably set against Edwards. In his early nineteenth-century biography, descendant S. E. Dwight named Israel and several others of the Williams clan as having “religious sentiments [that] differed widely from” those of Edwards. Their opposition soon became “a settled and personal hostility.” Williams served as counselor and ringleader to Edwards’s opponents. Joining this opposition were another cousin, Joseph Hawley Jr., 21 years Edwards’s junior.

Visible saints, hidden agendas
The same year John Stoddard died, an event finally pushed the hostile faction into open revolt.

For years, Edwards had been uncomfortable with the lenient policy on membership and communion set by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s predecessor at Northampton. Stoddard had allowed almost anyone to join and to partake, hoping that membership and communion might encourage true conversion. In 1748, Edwards changed the policy and told an applicant for church membership that he must first make a public “profession of godliness.”

Thus Edwards rejected the “Halfway Covenant”—the longstanding compromise of the Puritans who had, generations after planting their religious colonies, found their church membership dwindling. That compromise had reversed the traditional Puritan requirement that new church members be “visible saints,” godly in word and deed.

When the congregation saw that Edwards intended to return to the earlier, stricter Puritan position, demanding not only a profession of faith, but also evidence of repentance and holiness, a firestorm arose. Many of the church’s leading members felt Edwards’s innovation was a direct threat.

Two revivals had produced many converts, but, as biographer Patricia Tracy put it, “Men and women who had been recognized as visible saints in Northampton still wallowed in clandestine immorality and flagrant pride.”

Though Edwards knew, as he notes in his letters, that he was likely to lose his pastorate as a result, he stuck to his principles.

A council of the congregation put a moratorium on new memberships until the issue of criteria could be resolved. Edwards told them he planned to preach on his reasons for changing the policy. They forbade him to do so. Edwards began to write a book on the matter. Few read it, and too late to do much good.

In 1750, a council was called to consider whether the congregation would dismiss its minister. No one doubted what the conclusion would be.

Edwards’s friend David Hall noted in his diary the minister’s reaction when on June 22, 1750, the council handed down its decision:

“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good … even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission.”

46 and unemployed
Edwards wrote that he now found himself a 46-year-old ex-minister “fitted for no other business but study,” with a large family to provide for. Although he knew “we are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us,” he fretted over his situation in letters to friends. Yet neither the distressing conditions nor the continuing antagonism of his opponents drew him out to open attack.

Remarkably (and partly because of financial need), Edwards agreed to continue preaching at the church while they searched for a replacement. But his Farewell Sermon also indicates he acted out of continued concern for the flock. He continued through mid-November, despite the Town maliciously barring him, a month after his dismissal, from using its common grazing land.

Finally in December 1750, after an anxious autumn during which he had even considered removing his entire family to Scotland to accept an invitation there, Edwards accepted a charge in Massachusetts’s “wild west,” the Indian town of Stockbridge. There he would labor the rest of his life, pursue his theological thinking to its most brilliant heights, and create one of the most enduring missionary biographies of all time, the life story of his young friend David Brainerd.

Belated praise
In 1760, his former enemy, cousin Joseph Hawley, wrote to Edwards’s friend David Hall, confessing that “vast pride, self-sufficiency, ambition, and vanity” had animated his leadership in the “melancholy contention” with Edwards. He repented of his earlier failure to render the respect due Edwards as a “most able, diligent and faithful pastor.”

Hawley concluded, “I am most sorely sensible that nothing but that infinite grace and mercy which saved some of the betrayers and murderers of our blessed Lord, and the persecutors of his martyrs, can pardon me; in which alone I hope for pardon, for the sake of Christ, whose blood, blessed by God, cleanseth from all sin.”

On June 22, 1900, exactly 150 years after Edwards’s dismissal, a group gathered at the First Church in Northampton to unveil a bronze memorial.

H. Norman Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at Smith College and chairman of the memorial committee, characterized Edwards’s ejection as “a public rejection and banishment” that remained “a source of reproach to his church and people.” He noted the “hatred, malice, and uncharitableness which characterized the opposition to him,” for which, to Gardiner, no apology either contemporary or modern could atone.

Edwards would have disagreed, arguing instead that even such deeply wounding actions as the aggravated and wrongful dismissal of a pastor from his pulpit of 23 years are not unforgivable. In that understanding, as in so much else, Edwards was far ahead both of his enemies and of many of us today.

For 2003 Christian History magazine is publishing an issue commemorating the 300th anniversary of Edwards’s birth. For information visit www.christianhistory.net

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.
Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 52

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BOOK: The Wounded Minister

The Wounded Minister by Guy Greenfield, Ph.D. is a book that can encourage pastors who have been assaulted in various ways by antagonists. It provides some explanations for the interpersonal conflicts and dynamics that are often found in the local church, and offers insights and suggestions for how to think and what to do with these challenges.  Below are a few quotes from the book:

Moreover, Paul calls these boasting antagonists “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.”  Then he directly identifies them as ministers of Satan who disguise themselves as angels of light and ministers of righteousness but falsely so ([2 Cor.] 11:13-15).  In a spirit of stern judgment, the apostle states, “Their end will match their deeds” (11:15).  He goes on to observe that these antagonist have made slaves of the Corinthian believers, preyed upon them, taken advantage of them, put on airs and given them a slap in the face (11:20).  Paul even chides the Corinthian saints for not having commended (defended) him in the face of these antagonists (12:11). P. 45 

I suggested to one antagonist during my last week as his pastor that he seek psychotherapy.  He was furious at my suggestion.  He would do anything to avoid the pain of self-examination.  Evil persons hate the light of goodness that reveals their true nature, the light of scrutiny that would expose their sins, and the light of truth that would expose their deceptiveness.  The last place we would ever find an evil person would be in a therapist’s office.  Undergoing self-observation would seem to him like suicide.  Peck observes, “The most significant reason we know so little scientifically about human evil is simply that the evil are so extremely reluctant to be studied.”     P. 53

While to some degree mentally healthy persons submit themselves to their own conscience, evil persons exhibit an unusual willfulness.  These people are determined to have their own way at any cost, especially to other people.  P. 54

The takeover is always achieved through manipulative measures.  The willfulness of control is at the heart of evil behavior.  Peck observes, “The strong will—the power and authority—of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf.  But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s that of his own.  The crucial distinction is between ‘willingness and willfulness’ (quoting Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit).   P. 54

I have observed that when a church is more concerned with its internal operations, with “maintenance” of the organization, than it is with ministry, it becomes vulnerable to attempts at internal political control of the organization. P. 55

When the good, prayerful, dedicated, loving lay leaders are afraid of conflict in the church and have no stomach for challenging those who are using secular political methods to run the church, they will choose a philosophy of appeasement rather than reasonable confrontation.  Evil will then take advantage of what appears to be an open door to take over and control the church.      P. 56

“There are two kinds of injustice: the first is found in those who do an injury, the second in those who fail to protect another from injury when they can.”  [Quote from Cicero]  P. 59

Any self-governing body of people ends up being governed by a small group; an oligarchy we call it (the rule of the few).  Two forms of oligarchy can be observed in any local church.  The first is some type of official board (deacons, elders), elected by the church in accordance with its constitution and bylaws and is what sociologists call the manifest or official governing group.  The second is what sociologists call the latent or unofficial group of self-appointed leaders who are not necessarily elected by the church.  P. 70 

A new minister cannot immediately earn the respected role of the leader of the congregation, at least not in any practical sense.  It takes at least five years to earn such respect and trust.  Lay leaders who enjoy a powerful leadership role, whether elected or not, do not easily give up or share this power.  Therefore a conflict of leadership may result.   P. 71

A minister’s peace of mind is very important to the quality of his productivity in ministry.  It is very difficult to be loving, gentle, and kind toward people when a small group of nitpickers are constantly at him about trivial matters that have little to do with the overall purpose of the church.  It is even more difficult to be the gentle pastor, meek and mild, when the accusations leveled at him are contrived and totally false.  P. 104

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