Guest post by Travis Collins
A friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page: “Mean-spirited church people…sometimes I’d just like to shoot ‘em…bless their little hearts!” Well, gunfire is a bad idea. So what can we, ought we, must we do?
Remember these words: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus 3:10). Moreover, God inspired Paul to write to the Christians in Rome: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people,” (Romans 16:17-18).
Have nothing to do with them? Keep away from them? Those are strong words.
How would that play out in the real world? Well, perhaps there could be some kind of formal censure from the church or church leadership, or perhaps even an invitation never to attend church conferences or business meetings. The fact that there is a new emphasis on “church discipline” in some circles means that, in many cases, a person would actually be invited to leave and his or her name removed from the roll.
There are some caveats, however, to keep in mind when contemplating punitive measures.
First, there is a fine line between fear and prudence, and a fine line between courage and hubris.
As Richard Kriegbaum wrote, in Leadership Prayers, “A brave fool cannot lead any better than a fearful sage can.”i The choice not to take drastic measures might be the wise thing to do; it’s not necessarily a sign of weakness. And the choice to censure or “discipline” someone might be an act of hubris, not righteous anger. We must constantly examine our motives and let people who know and love us speak truth to us about what they believe is driving us.
Second, strength is in gentleness; not in retribution.
Gentleness, according to its New Testament origins, is the strength of restraint. But gentleness is not easy when people are acting foolishly.
One of my friends was asked by his church to leave a position in the corporate world to join the staff of his church. I asked his wife if he was going to consider it. “No way,” she told me. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
That rather odd phrase, “suffer fools gladly,” comes from the King James Version of 2 Corinthians 11:19: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” Let’s take a look at 2 Corinthians 11:19-21, in the New International Version:
You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
So the wise minister understands that some maltreatment (within reason) from people whom the Bible calls “foolish” comes with the territory. The wise and strong minister maintains his or her poise despite insensitive and offensive behavior.
I think my friend could have gone on that church staff and done well, by the way; but some of you reading this fully understand why he wouldn’t want to even try.
Third, rare is the minister who is a completely innocent party in a church ruckus.
It would be immoral to throw someone under the church bus when we are at least partially responsible for their poor behavior. If we cannot look the congregation in the eyes and say we wouldn’t have done things differently, then we need to tap the brakes on our corrective measures.
If we have contributed to the mess, let’s back up, cool our jets, own our part, and wait. In due time disciplinary measures might be warranted despite our imperfect handling of the situation…but only in due time.
-adapted from Travis’ upcoming book based on Acts 20:28.
Travis Collins wears two major hats, as Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US and as a consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches. Travis served for twenty-five years as a senior pastor, the last nineteen years in two large congregations. His experience also includes missionary service in Venezuela and Nigeria. He is a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Directionally Challenged (2007) and Tough Calls (2008). His third book, based on Acts 20:28, will be released in the fall of 2014 (Chalice Press). Travis and his wife, Keri, have three adult children.