Lessons Learned

A couple of years ago, I marked a twenty-fifth anniversary of sorts. It would be inaccurate to say that I “celebrated” it, but I did pause to note its arrival.

In August of 1983, while away on vacation, I was notified that the Reformed Baptist congregation in which I was a deacon had split into two churches. Although a split had been brewing for months, the news still came as a shock to me.

The circumstances leading up to the split were complex. Many of them were made known in public meetings, and others I experienced firsthand. As I’ve reflected on the events, some of the things that took place still bewilder and grieve me.

The formal cause for the split was a doctrinal dispute that began in Reformed Baptist circles in the late 1970s and produced divisions in various RB churches in the 80’s and 90’s. A key issue was the relevance of the Old Testament to New Testament believers.

Two of the congregation’s three teaching elders (for simplicity, I’ll call them Elders A and B) were attracted to the idea that classic Covenant Theology is wrong and that the moral law is not binding for the NT Christian. Elder C, the third teaching elder, was adamantly opposed to this error. On my return to Massachusetts after the split, I returned to the part of the church that had remained orthodox in its views.

I must explain that I refer to this doctrinal issue as the “formal” cause for the split because it was really only one of several matters that led to the split. It’s apparent to me that a number of issues — most having to do with personal conflicts — were more important to many in the church than the theological issues. In fact, my recollection is that although some of the discussions among the church’s leaders (the deacons and elders held their meetings together) focused on the doctrinal questions, as the debate progressed into the rest of the congregation, doctrine quickly took a back seat to personal conflicts.

Division among the teaching elders led to a flurry of congregational meetings. Somewhere — I have no desire to find it — I have a thick set of minutes detailing the bickering that took place during a succession of painful meetings.

As the anniversary approached, after years of deliberately not thinking about this experience, I started wondering what benefit I had gained from living through it. What had I learned?

There’s a reason we are not to let the sun go down on our anger
One of the things that struck me was the great extent to which old grudges surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, as the conflict developed.

In one public meeting, Elder A asked one of the men of the congregation, “what do you have against me?” Apparently he had always sensed an aloofness in the man’s manner toward him. The man explained that two or three years earlier, when they first met, Elder A did not greet him as politely as he thought he should have been greeted. He’d never liked Elder A from that day forward. I’ve long wondered how this man was able to sit at the Lord’s Table month after month with Elder A, all the time silently nursing a grudge against him.

At least one of the women of the congregation was openly contemptuous of Elder A once conflict broke into the open; she seemed to view him as a nuisance to be disposed of. At one point she told another woman, “if we can get rid of Elder A, we can handle Elder B.” Her main complaint, as nearly as I could tell, was that Elder A was rather blunt and good at defending his opinions, and he made her “feel small” when he disagreed with her.

Bible translations were at the heart of another conflict. A couple of years before the split, the elders had decided to put a modern-language Bible translation (the NIV) into the pews instead of the KJV. Elder C preferred the KJV, but went along with the idea somewhat reluctantly. Given that this was the mid-1980s it was hardly a radical action, but some in the church suspected that the change reflected a willingness on the part of Elders A&B to corrupt the Word of God. After the split, the orthodox faction gave all the new Bibles to the group that had departed so that the KJV could be restored.

“Concerned discussion” easily turns into gossip
Months before the split, I was present for several private conversations in which doubts were raised about Elders A and B. I remember being mildly uncomfortable and wondering why the questions were not being directed to the men themselves. Some of what was said probably qualified as idle talk rather than as appropriate conversation.

In any case, after the split the tales I heard from the “orthodox” left little doubt that much of the talk going on was sinful. For example, there were “orthodox” members who repeatedly eavesdropped on the conversations of “non-orthodox” former members and shared what they had heard with others. A good deal of mischief came of the idle talk indulged in by the “orthodox.”

If the shepherds are divided, the sheep are easy prey
As differences began to emerge, some of the members began persuading Elder C that the other two men were his enemies and could not be trusted. They drove such a wedge between them that their relationships rapidly became irreparably damaged. People began taking sides, to some extent, on the basis of their feelings of sympathy for the various parties. Thus the breach between the elders spread rapidly into the rest of the congregation.

Now that I am an elder, I’m thankful that the men with whom I serve are committed to laboring together without becoming divided. I’m certain that this commitment has helped protect the church from harm over the years.

Presbyterian government may be slow, but it beats the alternatives
I’m a presbyterian because I’m convinced that it is Biblical, but I also believe that it works better than congregationalism. This experience demonstrates the practical limits of congregational church government. There was never any real chance of restoring peace or settling the doctrinal issues once the leaders became divided. With no one outside the congregation capable of helping to settle disputes and restore peace, a split was inevitable.

Deep wounds heal slowly
I eventually moved on from that congregation, though not just because of the split. I’m very thankful that by God’s grace I was able to find a congregation that was not characterized by grudges, gossip, or grumbling, and I have remained there ever since. But for several years after the split, I found myself over-reacting to minor conflicts that arose in my new church home. Eventually I realized that every disagreement, no matter how small, was reminding me of the strife in my former church.

Living through the split has given me empathy for other Christians who have been through “church troubles.” They often don’t recognize when they are responding instinctively to situations that remind them of old wounds, even when the circumstances are quite different.

Believing sound doctrine is not enough
I think what was most disturbing for me in this experience was the behavior of many of the folks who were doctrinally in the right.

Toward the end of my time in the “orthodox” congregation, I asked Elder C whether he thought there were matters of discipline that still needed to be addressed in the church. He replied, rather sadly, that if discipline were properly applied, we would probably have to discipline almost everyone left in the congregation. I found that a very telling remark.

I learned that the Evil One is quite capable of inducing people to sin even as they are standing on the side of orthodoxy. I suspect that this is the most important lesson of all.

Most of all, this experience made me more aware of just how important prayer and patient shepherding are in order to maintain a spirit of unity in a church. Any congregation, no matter how healthy, must remain on guard against the tricks and strategies of the Evil One.

Recently I listened to an excellent sermon by Rev. Edward Donnelly with the title, “Called by Grace.” At one point in it he asks, “Are our church fellowships places of grace? Is grace the spirit in which we live and believe? Why are Christians so cruel to each other?… Have we a forgiving and merciful spirit?”

Indeed.

Have we?

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