Take Heart My Brothers: Six Pastoral Priorities in the Face of Church Conflict

ethan-weil-262745In fair weather, the Pastoral Epistles are a storehouse of spiritual wisdom and instruction for the life of the Church and her ministers. But as we know too well, such cloudless skies are infrequent. Thankfully, when affliction grips the body of Christ, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are the most capable of helping pastors and churches navigate dark skies and turbulent winds. And thus in times of relational conflict and spiritual warfare, we (pastors) need to study them with an eye to what they say to about leading the church through conflict.

Indeed, in these letters (and others), Paul often speaks about the work of Satan, and significantly he places our enemy not outside, but inside, Christ’s fold. For instance, among born-again believers, Paul speaks of the way Satan finds a foothold (Ephesians 4:27), ensnares young believers ambitious to lead (1 Timothy 3:6–7), and turns brothers into opponents (2 Timothy 2:22–26). Because of his spiritual invasion, the church must always be on guard (1 Peter 5:8), praying against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10–19), and aware that ungodly people sneak into the church (Jude). Even more, wise elders must give themselves to steering the church straight in the face of opposition that comes from within the church and without.

To do this elders must keep a few things before their eyes. That is, we must prepare ourselves for the turmoil that sin and Satan bring to the church. And thus, in the face of constant threats, churches and church leaders do well to have a clear understanding of what to do when trouble comes. And there is no better place to find this counsel than the Pastoral Epistles.

So, if you are a pastor going through rough waters in your church, or if you are church member wondering what a faithful model of leadership should look like in the face of conflict, here are six priorities from the Book of Titus to guide your steps. Surely, these priorities will need to be administered with care in various contemporary settings, but they nonetheless provide biblical direction for churches to keep in mind when the wind and waves of church conflict seek to run the church aground.

Six Pastoral Priorities in the Face of Church Conflict

Priority #1: Strengthen the Faith of the Elect . . . At All Costs

In the book of Titus, Paul begins his instruction to Titus with these words,

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, . . .  (1:1)

As Paul says in another Pastoral Epistle, he suffers greatly for the sake of the elect (2 Timothy 2:10). In short, Paul’s first and greatest priority is to strengthen with the gospel those whom God is saving from the world. For the pastor, this is priority number 1. Every action, decision, sermon, and prayer must be aimed at this reality—the bolstering of faith in those whom God has elected.

Indeed, because churches should be vineyards where love and good deeds grow by the Spirit, it is tempting to believe that relational difficulties should be avoided at all costs. But such a posture forgets that pastors are primarily soil workers. We are called to sow seed and water with Scripture, so that the environment is hospitable for faith. Ultimately, God must grant the Spirit and when he does, in the New Testament at least, we must remember that there will be opposition and challenge (see all of Acts). Thus, pastors must prioritize the faith of their flock, by ongoing and increasing commitment to Scripture, the gospel, personal discipleship, and prayer. And in order not to lose heart or lose direction, pastors must remember that conflict is not necessarily the enemy of spiritual fruit. Often it is the cause of great growth in God’s church.

Truly, it is anything that deviates from keeping the gospel central which is the real enemy of lasting fruit. In this way, the pastor’s first priority is to keep his eye on God and the gospel as he and they help God’s people see how trials are used by to unify and purify the church. Sadly, such Christ-centered ministry may push (some) people away, but for those who stay—when Christ is lifted up in the Scripture—it will strengthen, purify, and multiply faith.

Priority #2: Model Grace and Godliness

A grave danger for pastors who emphasize the gospel is to promote the truth with man-made strength. To say it differently, gospel preaching can at times produce more heat than light when we rely on ourselves—e.g., the strength of our argument, the cleverness of our speech (especially online), or the maneuvering of our meetings—to bring about change. By contrast, God intends for personal holiness and grace-filled living to be the force behind our words.

Such godliness models to the church—to disciples and detractors—the fruit of genuine belief. Throughout Titus, Paul emphasizes sound doctrine that leads to good fruit (1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 14). But the key human catalyst that stands between doctrine and good works are leaders who model such gracious godliness in their own lives. As Paul says to Titus: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (2:7).

Indeed, irritation and impatience are always crouching outside the pastor’s door. And thus Paul gives instructions for church leaders filled with grace. In Titus 1 Paul insists that the elder must be

. . . above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. (vv. 6–8)

Such a list is paralleled in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and supplemented by Paul’s comments in 2 Timothy 2:22–26. In the latter list, Paul speaks of the way the servant of God must conduct himself when correcting others. He writes,

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

The faithful pastor must not only be able to teach sound doctrine and correct false teaching (Titus 1:9), he must also know when to hold his tongue, endure accusation, and treat opponents with gentleness in the face of disagreement.

Again, such characteristics call for something more than well-polished flesh. Elders must be filled with the Holy Spirit and sanctified by God’s Word. And the reason for this is that the church will look to them when—not if—conflict arises. And regularly what makes the most impression on the church is not the skill of the pastor’s speaking, but the patience, gentleness, and kindness of their character.

Certainly, pastors must be able to speak truth, explain doctrine, and defend Scripture. But even more, we must be able to do that with humility and grace in the face of unfounded accusation.Why? Because to those in the church who may not understand all the debates going on, they can see who is grace-filled and who is not, who is slow to anger and who is racing to spread malicious reports. In this way, young believers who may not understand debated doctrines or practices  can see in the character of the elders which doctrine produces good fruit.

Priority #3: Lead with Grace

If God has graced you with godly maturity and called you to serve as an under-shepherd for Christ, then you must lead with the same grace you have been given. In other words, we pastors must not lead with legalistic commands, but with the hope of the gospel that produces transformation as new creatures in Christ learn how to walk in grace. Again, Titus instructs well in this regard.

First, with respect to teaching sound doctrine, Paul places teaching (2:1) in the context of thick, discipleship relationships. That is, instead of producing a confession faith or treatise on the atonement, Paul speaks about the relationships between older and younger men, older and younger women. Rightly, Paul understands that churches grow into health when gospel truth permeates relationships and more mature believers disciple others.

Thus, in times of conflict, pastors must cultivate relationships with the church and not trust that truth taught from the pulpit once a week will produce change. Likewise, we must encourage and create opportunities for healthy, Christ-centered conversation to happen among the church. If a certain population of the church is poisoning the congregation with grumbling or ungodly talk, we must not simply rail from on high against gossip, we must encourage conversation about what God has done in Christ and what he is doing through the Holy Spirit in our midst. Thus, as Titus 2 models, pastors must not be the only truth-tellers, we must catalyze others.

At the same time, we must encourage conversation that is truly filled with gospel grace. As Paul explains in Titus 2:11–14, the appearance of grace is what empowers us to say ‘no’ to sin and ‘yes’ to godliness. Grace is not simply what justifies us; it is what must sanctify us. And the more people are talking about that—how the gospel impels us to love God and love others—the more fresh air is breathed into the church. And, especially if strife has broken out or is lingering under the surface, this focus on the gospel is what cleanses the poison from the body of Christ.

Priority #4: Rebuke the Deceiver and the Deceived

So in the midst of conflict, preaching the gospel, modeling grace, and leading with grace are the essential positive steps of the pastor. But they are not complete without more painful process of defending the flock from the falsehoods of the deceived and the deceiver(s). We find this principle of protection first in Titus 1, where Paul addresses the false teaching and ungodliness brought in by the empty talkers and deceivers of the circumcision party (1:10).

In this case, and perhaps in many cases, the trouble stems not from the ignorant, but from those who are well-versed in theological matters. In Crete, there were many younger believers who needed pastoral leadership—hence, the instruction for the church to recognize and appoint qualified elders. However, the immaturity of this chuch also made it vulnerable to capable, but misguided teachers.

As Paul says in 1:11, “they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” In truth, this is perhaps the most difficult decision in pastoral ministry—knowing when to address an erring member (or non-member) and with what kind of severity. Typically, the nature of the teaching and the character of the individual involved will give indication. Certainly, this is why a plurality of elders is prescribed in Scripture, because no single individual is capable of seeing all sides of situation.

Still, in the end, the pastors of a church must guard the sheep from false teachers, from malicious gossips, and from those who are leading people to bind themselves to anything that pulls them away from the gospel. If priority #1 is to build up the faith of the saints with gospel truth, then when anyone undercuts confidence in the gospel or in the church’s faithfulness to the gospel, such a person must be addressed. Practically, this should not be a singular decision of one elder, but a mutually determined act where each elder has been consulted and provided input. Likewise, the gentlest approach should always be taken (see again 2 Timothy 2:22–26), but gentleness does not mean passivity or complacency.

As Paul says in Titus 1:13, pastors must “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” At first glance, this may seem to be the deceivers who are in view, but a closer look a Titus 1, we find that Paul has in mind the members of the church who have been deceived. Indeed, whenever conflict arises in the church, there will be unsuspecting members who are dragged in and led to believe falsehoods. Following the order of the other priorities above, pastors must be willing to lovingly correct believers who have been misled.

This might include explaining the situation that brought about the divide; it might include instructing from God’s Word; or it might relate to rebuking the actions or beliefs of an individual who has come under the influence of another. Whatever the situation requires, however, pastors must be willing to engage in personal, face-to-face, often time-consuming counsel to those who have been hurt by the offending false teachers.

Truth be told, this sort of ministry is the most grueling and thankless. It often comes with personal accusation toward the pastor(s) and may result in such members departing. But, for the sake of their soul(s), it is right and necessary for pastors to rebuke those who are being led astray.

Again, the wisdom of a elder plurality comes into view here. Likewise, the need for godly non-elders, whether deacons and/or older men and women of deep faith, is also imperative. In such instances, elders can and should find help from faithful Christians in the church. In times of misunderstanding, elders should freely look for help in unifying, edifying, and building up the body.

Indeed, any time the elders move to rebuke someone in the church, they run the risk of setting up a division in the church. This is why gracious leadership and biblical teaching is imperative, and why in the midst of correcting anyone, the elders must also examine their own motives and admit wrong-doing if applicable (cf. Matthew 7:1–5). Such an admission of wrongdoing can be faked, of course, but its complete absence is probably more concerning.

Priority #5: Remove the Divisive Member

Few things in the life of a church are more sorrowful than the discipline and removal of an erring member. Yet, failure to address sin is equally grievous, not to mention poisonous for the health of a church. Therefore, in the closing verses of Titus, Paul addresses this situation, with especial reference to those bringing division to the church. He writes in Titus 3:10–11,

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

In any situation of church conflict there will be leaders who instigate the division. In such instances, these people may, figuratively speaking, drop grenades and leave. Such guerrilla warfare leaves shrapnel in the body of Christ, but at least the perpetrator of the blast has departed. In other instances, however, the divisive person may remain along with his or her bitter words. Whatever the cause—be it doctrinal or moral or something more obscure—when the activity of this person creates suspicion and division between members in the church or the church and the elders, the elders must address the offense. And, as Paul says, if the warnings are unheeded, they must lead the church remove him.

Again, few things are more painful in the church than division among the members. But all the more for that reason, passivity must be rejected. Just as a true shepherd must drive off wolves, lions, and bears, so the shepherds of God’s church cannot simply flash smiles and pat backs. They must, when ungodly persons bring division, be willing to defend the flock from them. In isolation, such actions may seem unloving or even mean-spirited. Often it may invite accusations of arrogance or autocracy, but such is the role of the Christ-like pastor—in the face of accusation to seek the good of the flock by preaching the gospel and removing unrepentant strife-starters.

Priority #6: Remember Whose Church This Is and What Our Role Is

Finally, all of these priorities depend upon remembering who owns the church (1 Corinthians 6:19). Ultimately, pastors are not the final authority, Christ is. And thus, we are constrained by his sovereign rule to humble ourselves under him as we lead his church. Simultaneously, we are encouraged to know that he designs to build, purify, and protect his church through his people (Ephesians 4:11–16). As elders, we are called by Christ to lead the church to trust Christ and to bring Christ’s biblical order into the church.

In God’s economy, the church is gifted with pastor-teachers who are called to build up the church with Christ’s word. And in Titus 1, Paul begins by reminding the church of the elders role: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (v. 5). For Paul, elders were the local means of bringing order to the church. Just as the Spirit brings order out of chaos in creation, so the Spirit fills elders who will in bring spiritual order in the church.

This is what Paul is saying in Titus 1, that the newly formed church in Crete needed further ordering. And the means of this spiritual construction would be carried out through the elders. Just like in Acts 14:23, when Paul established elders in the Galatian churches, so here again Paul turns to godly, word-saturated men in Crete to bring order to the church. From the inception of the church at Pentecost, this has always been God’s plan.

And now, churches and their elders need to remember the delegated authority they have been given to shape the church according to God’s Word. In our authority-averse culture, such leadership is easily opposed, misunderstood, and maligned but for that reason the church needs gracious, gospel-centered elders. And churches who call elders to serve them must remember why Christ has given elders to the church—to put into order the people God has gathered to himself. Indeed, so much strife is caused by people—elders included—who forget what the church is and who the church belongs to.

Back to the Basics

Whenever strife comes to the church, we know that something in the body of Christ has been put out of place or soon will be. And thus, we don’t need to panic or run away from the church. Rather, we need to go back to the basics—the Word of God and the gospel—which laid the foundation for the church in the first place. And with books like Titus and the other Pastoral Epistles we find help in our hour of need.

Indeed, the Lord knew what he was doing when he died for his church. And he still knows what he is doing as he gathers together various sinners in local, Spirit-filled assemblies. The trouble is that when the storms come, we in the church can forget what he is doing and how these afflictions are meant to draw us to purify our faith, hope, and love. Thus churches and especially church leaders need to be reminded of God’s purposes in times of trouble, because in the press of affliction God forms us to reflect more of his Son.

In this way, trouble and travail are not ultimately enemies of the church, they are necessary means to a greater end—the purification of God’s people. Amazingly, in Christ and his church, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. And this includes the church itself, with the various gifts and members. For that reason, as we suffer together in the church, may we not grow bitter at the trials, but may the conflicts lead us to trust more in Christ and love for one another. For ultimately, this is the design of the church—to make disciples and be disciples who display the love of the Chief Disciple-Maker.

In that mission, may we as brother-elders take heart in what Christ has done and is doing in the church. And then from faith in him, may we labor and suffer to see Christ formed in us and in the people God has given us to shepherd. This is what the Pastoral Epistles help us to do and enable us to do by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

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