Musings on Church Squabbles
by Fred Zaspel
I have been in church all my life. I grew up in a pastor’s home, and from childhood until now have seen “the inside” of countless church problems — in the churches to which I have belonged, in churches which I have pastored, and in other churches in which I have for various reasons and to various extents been involved. Just recently I have witnessed some rather severe problems in two churches (both out of state) with which I am rather well acquainted, one of which resulted in the resignation of the pastor — one of the best and most faithful pastors I know, and this previously thriving church is now hanging by a thread and will likely never be back to its former “glory days.” In the other . . . well, the score card is not in yet on that one, but the pastor and elders seem to be handling it well, and the church, though hurting, seems to be responding well also.
I have noticed again in these experiences one factor which very often complicates problems and could otherwise be relatively minor. If I’ve seen this once I’ve seen it a hundred times — one person gets bent out of shape, and another takes up his cause and leads a charge “in his defense.” In these cases, it is often not the person in question that becomes the problem; it is rather the one who takes up his cause who becomes incorrigible. Now “everything is wrong, and no one at this church does anything right. In fact, I never was happy here, really. And I have suspected for a long time that the pastor is preaching heresy.” And on it goes.
In the wake of the recent squabble, one of that church’s leaders asked me about this familiar problem. What do we say about the one who takes up the cause of another?
I have thought on this over the years as I have witnessed it, and still a clear answer is difficult. And it is difficult simply because it is complicated. The complication is that on the one hand I would feel responsible to take up your cause in your defense if I believed you were being wronged. That, I think, is a virtue — it reflects a sense of justice and a sense of compassion. I have, in fact, “gone to bat” for people at my own church who I felt were being wronged and I would do it again. Surely, that is good.
But in taking up the cause of someone else I must be very careful of two things. First, I must be very certain that I am correct in my assessment of the matter at hand. This means that I must seek to know the relevant facts and remain open to learning more. And second, in taking up the cause, I must take it up in the right way. I must go with the right attitude. I must not be unnecessarily harsh. I must remain willing to adjust my stance according to the truth of the matter and make my judgments “by the numbers.” There may be mitigating circumstances, and all the relevant facts must be taken in. And if I am not committed to being truthful and if I do not deal with the problem correctly, then I will surely hurt more than help. I must not make more of the issue than necessary or in any way make the situation worse than it is. I must remain teachable, open to the facts of the matter. I must not dig in my heels at all costs but be willing at all times to admit an incorrect judgment when presented with facts and explanations. After all, it is the truth and justice of the matter that should concern me more than vindicating someone who, in fact, may have done wrong. In these situations, if we vindicate the villain, we will inevitably vilify the victim!
So if the person is truly being wronged, then it is of course right to correct the injustice. But before getting involved I must be in a position to know the situation and remain committed to handling the matter truthfully — “by the numbers” — and in a way that will bring honor to God.
But — and here is the real kicker — in the hands of poor, miserable sinners like us, these situations will surely continue to be messy! God be merciful to us!
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two children, Gina and Jim.