Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dear Abby Gets It Wrong on Church Conflict

I’m not normally someone who reads the “Dear Abby” column, but yesterday as I was waiting on a pizza to cook, I picked up the paper and there it was.

Someone wrote in to Abby complaining about the pastor.  They said he preaches at people and uses his pulpit to bully them around.  Here's the link.

In response, Abby told them the appropriate action was not to talk to the pastor directly, but to go over his head and take it to the governing body of the church.  If that failed, she said, they should “consider finding another ‘flock’ to join.”

Now, since Dear Abby is not a church scholar, not a biblical scholar, or anything else that would usually give her credence to be taken seriously, I would normally cut her some slack.  But since she has more than “110 million” readers each day, a response might be more worthwhile than expected.

Sooo….here goes!

First, let me say that it is altogether possible and actually highly likely that the pastor is doing exactly what the reader says he is.  I have had my fair share of run ins with bully pulpits and preachers who use less-than-loving tactics.  But even if that is true, Dear Abby’s advice is still wrong and should not be heeded by Christians.


There are several other scenarios that are also equally plausible in this situation.  It is possible that the pastor is not who the reader says he is and that the reader is just looking for an excuse to leave.  This happens all the time.  Many good preachers have been branded as bully pulpiteers for preaching things their parishioners don’t want to hear.  It happened to the prophets.  It happened to Jesus.  And it still happens to faithful preachers today.

It is also likely that this readers’ characterization is somewhat true, but that the pastor does not realize the way his sermons are coming across.  If the reader then heeds Dear Abby’s advice, he’s already been crucified before his governing body before he even knows what’s going on or has a chance to do anything about it.

And, as I said above (it needs repeating), even if the reader’s characterization is true, Dear Abby’s advice is still wrong.

Here’s why:

In the context of the Christian community Christ’s teachings and principles outweigh our emotional reactions.  Jesus says to us: “If your brother sins against you…” (Matthew 18: 15-17).

And if we follow Jesus’ teachings we find there is a four step approach for addressing conflicts in the Christian community.

First, we take our issue to our offender face-to-face, privately.  We all save face if we can work out our grievances in private.  Of course, I understand there are situations where this cannot be done, such as in abuse situations, but in issues such as the presenting case face-to-face private conversation is the first step.  The reader who wrote in should talk to their pastor privately first with the intention not of condemnation, but with the intention of working things out.

Second, if that doesn’t work, we take a wise church leader or two with us.  When we sit down again to discuss the situation there are trusted people there to hold us accountable to each other and to help us understand each other.  If the face-to-face meeting doesn’t work, an Elder or two, respected and trusted leaders in the church should be sought out.  Triangulation is not the key here.  The role of these two is not to take sides, but to mediate and to seek resolution and peace.  The pastor and the parishioner have another chance, this time with help, to resolve their differences.

Third, if neither of those steps produces resolution we take it before the governing body of the church.  Notice, this is the THIRD step in the process, not the first step as Dear Abby recommends.  And again, the motive in this step is still not condemnation.  If the person runs first to the board as Abby says, they do so without communication, without understanding, and without patience.  They go to the board with emotional motivations, hoping to rake the pastor over the coals rather than resolve the issue.  Instead, as a third step the governing body is sought out to bring about the collective wisdom of the community and a much-hoped-for resolution to the conflict.

Fourth (notice the third step was not the last!), if all else fails we “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).  Now here’s where it gets tricky.  We would normally assume this means we’re to part ways at this point, but we must pay attention to context!  This teaching was issued by Jesus.  So we have to ask: How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?  If we are honest we find that he reached out to them, he sent his followers to reach out to them, he dined with them, he offered forgiveness and healing. 

Does this mean there’s never a situation where a preacher should be fired for using a bully-pulpit?  No, of course it does not.  There are situations where the person refuses to address their behavior and it negatively outweighs the faithfulness to the Gospel demands upon the congregation.  But it does mean it should be a LAST resort.  It means love should be the ethic in which we resolve our differences.  It means resolution, not restitution, should guide our decisions in times of church conflict.  And it means we have to approach our conflict with the conviction that God’s desire to forgive and unite us, as expressed in Jesus’ self-giving death on the cross, outweighs any emotional desires we may have.

And finally, finding another flock, as Dear Abby recommends, is almost never the answer.  If we cannot forgive each other and find a way to restore our relationships we give a very poor testimony to the power of Christ.  In all likelihood the reader is going to choose another church and find out that there are things they don’t like there, either.  So they’ll have to start looking again…and again…and again.  Disbanding, severing the bonds of the Christian community, gives false witness to the power of Christ.

So here’s my advice to “All Fire and Brimstone”:  Stop reading Dear Abby.  She doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about.  If you have a question about etiquette or how to handle conflict in the church, a newspaper columnist should not be your first choice for seeking advice (it should seem rather obvious!).  First, consult the scriptures.

And here’s my advice to Dear Abby: Since you obviously don’t know what the Bible says about handling conflict in the Christian community, and since you obviously don’t give advice based on the principles that guide the Christian community, stop giving advice on Christian community.  Really, it’s for everyone’s sake, including your own.  How awful would it be to have your reputation further tarnished in getting called out by those who aren’t syndicated!

Note: Neither the reader, nor Dear Abby, explicitly stated that it was a Christian church community.  This assumption is totally mine.  But I based that assumption on the fact that Dear Abby is a column that is Western, and particularly American, and on the language used.  “Pastor,” “Fire and Brimstone,” and “Bully Pulpit” are all pretty exclusive to Christian circles. Additionally, it most other religious traditions in America there is not nearly as much freedom  to simply go join another congregation.  There may not even be other congregations of that particular faith in the given community.  Church shopping and swapping is a particularly American Christian phenomenon for the most part.

1 comment:

Cheyanna said...

Thank you for your kind and easy to follow words.