With my first post about Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do With Well-Intentioned Dragons, I wanted to kick off the series on a positive or constructive tack, rather than just whining or blaming. Every church, going all the way back to Corinth and beyond, has had its share of folks who pass over the threshold of acceptable or normal misbehaving and into those super-descriptive, unflattering Scriptural categories reserved for the worst cases: they are gossips, slanderers, divisive persons, judgmental and evil, wild waves, and blemishes on your love feasts.1 The Lord is not pleased with those who trouble the church. From Richard Baxter:
He that is not a son of Peace is not a son of God. All other sins destroy the Church consequentially; but Division and Separation demolish it directly…2
Remember, Marshall Shelley points out that “problem people in the church don’t generally try to be difficult or divisive or destructive. For the most part, the trouble they cause flows from a real, deep concern for Christ and His church… the well-intentioned miscreants in our midst are flesh and blood – they are people, not the enemy, and we are not to wrestle against them.”
If the author is correct, and I think he is, the place to start with the what to do or what not to do about problem people in the church, begins with the leaders. After all, the book was written and compiled by leaders and for leaders, so it’s appropriate to begin the house cleaning with those who are tasked with the domestic oversight of the local churches in the New Testament: deacons, elders3 and other leaders.
So, what role do leaders play in the scheming and mischief of Well-Intentioned Dragons? How do pastors contribute to the rise of problem people within the church?
First, leaders often turn a blind eye to small offenses, hoping the troubling pattern of behavior they observe will go away or the problem person will suddenly or miraculously change. This is a common strategy for all of us when we encounter sinful behavior, living in community with people who sometimes rub us the wrong way. We hope offenses won’t rise to the level of actually having to confront a brother or sister. We think the best about them and that’s a good thing. We’ll even remind ourselves that:
love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8 ESV)
This is an appropriate course for most garden variety offenses in our interpersonal relationships in the church. But, for leaders who may be facing a well-intentioned dragon, repeated offenses gone unnoticed or without reasonable, Biblical response, will usually lead to bigger problems by 1) signaling weakness to problem people who are aggressive or agenda driven 2) encouraging well-meaning, yet disruptive, members in continuing down the path toward serious sin by not giving them appropriate, firm, and constructive feedback or, perhaps, even warning. Either way, the leaders bear the responsibility of communicating what acceptable behavior looks like in a Gospel-centered church. Richard Baxter had a lot to say on these matters and I’ll quote him a couple more times:
The neglect of discipline hath a strong tendency to delude immortal souls, by making those think they are Christians that are not, while they are permitted to live with the character of such, and are not separated from the rest by God’s ordinance: and it may make the scandalous think their sin a tolerable thing, which is so tolerated by the pastors of the church.4
Second, leaders often complain about troublemakers in sermons and teachings, conceding that “church discipline doesn’t work” or “we won’t open ourselves up for a lawsuit” by confronting serious sin. This sort of public surrender is an open invitation for sociopaths, as well as a subtle tip of the hat to those who are far less dangerous, yet still able to trouble the peace of a church and divert attention, energy, and resources off mission. The church is a community and its greatest resources are Spirit gifted people, spreading the Good News and expanding Christ’s kingdom. In our current church culture, particularly the Evangelical stream, if notorious dragons are allowed free reign, those resources (people) will often leave to find opportunities for more fruitful service somewhere else. Things haven’t changed much, since Richard Baxter observed this trend over 300 years ago:
the Exercise of Church-Discipline was no small furtherance of the Peoples Good: For I found plainly that without it I could not have kept the Religious sort from Separations and Divisions. There is something generally in their Dispositions, which inclineth them to dissociate from ungodly Sinners… and if they had not seen me do something reasonable for a Regular Separation of the notorious obstinate Sinners from the rest, they would irregularly have withdrawn themselves…5
Third, well-intentioned dragons thrive where leaders do not provide clear direction for the flock. You know it’s true: no one complains more than an army between battles or an idle workforce. If children aren’t supervised and engaged in constructive activities, they will be bothering one another and getting into trouble. As members of God’s family, we are like children. At the same time, we are in a life and death struggle with the powers of darkness. And, we are on mission, working with God in building up His kingdom. If pastors don’t appear to take the Spiritual battle seriously, if they don’t articulate the building plans clearly and regularly, and if leaders are not supervising God’s children and guiding them into worthwhile Gospel ministry, then those with their own plans for the church will arise to fill that leadership vacuum. Or, even worse, a wolf may pick up on the leaders’ lackadaisical approach and see an opportunity to exploit or tear up the flock.
Perhaps worst of all, leaders can be well-intentioned dragons themselves. Rather than immediately scanning the flock to ferret out the dragons in our churches, this may be the place to start in minimizing the risk. Leaders, look to yourselves:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 ESV)
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach… sober-minded, self-controlled… not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1 Timothy 3:2–3 ESV)
above reproach… not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination… He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered… a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. (Titus 1:6–8 ESV)
shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly… not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3 ESV)
- 1 Timothy 6:13, Titus 3:9, James 2:4, Jude [↩]
- Directions to the people of Kidderminster prefixed to the original edition of The Saints Everlasting Rest cited in Nuttall Richard Baxter 64 [↩]
- The New Testament uses the terms elder, pastor, overseer or their various other translations, such as shepherd or bishop, interchangeably. This NT vocabulary serves to illustrate or emphasize the character and various functions of the leader(s) in local Christian communities. So, when I speak of elders, pastors or overseers on this blog, I am referring to the same leaders within a church – an elder is a pastor and an overseer. [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 168 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 91 [↩]