Over the last five years or so, I have had at least half a dozen pastor friends who have had to leave or resign from their churches on account of various kinds of congregational dysfunction or confict. Even though it’s true that I don’t know many of the details about these individual stories, it almost doesn’t matter. Because while I don’t doubt that there is truth on both sides, my concern is more about how churches and Christians handle these situations. In many cases, these pastors have walked away having to deal with a sort of spiritual PTSD. Whoever’s to blame, these situations leave a lot of wreckage in their wake.
For about 20 years or so now I have been pastoring small, rural Baptist churches. So far I have managed to avoid serious conflicts with the churches I have been privileged to serve. In that way, my family and I have been remarkably blessed. I hope and pray that this remains the case. Yet, I have seen and heard of enough shenanigans, in-fighting, and struggles for power to make me wonder sometimes why anyone still bothers with this thing called “church.” There are moments when it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Then again, there are those who don’t bother with church anymore. A harsh word, a critical remark, or an insensitive comment is all it takes for some to turn tail and run. I can’t say I blame them. How much easier is it to disengage from Christian community than it is to keep pressing forward with it, especially if it’s going to be this painful?
The truth is, despite having said that I’ve not had to deal with serious conflicts in the churches that I’ve pastored, there are ways in which this is still a problem. Bear with me. My point is this: there are people who have left churches while I’ve been pastor, but for the most part I don’t know why they’ve left. Not really. As a pastor you can try to have those awkward conversations with people who have left, but quite often what you’re told is that it has nothing to do with you or anyone at the church. At least that’s my experience. It’s the classic break-up scenario where the one doing the breaking up tries to make the other person feel better: “It’s not you, it’s me.”
And I understand. Completely. No one wants a confrontation. No one wants to make anyone else feel badly. Or this is at least the case in the church culture that I’ve been a part of for the last couple of decades. Walking away quietly can seem like the more honourable and respectable approach. No one gets hurt this way. Presumably. Of course, as a pastor it can be incredibly difficult not to take such situations personally. Clergy beyond count have wrestled with these questions in the long watches of the night: “What did I do? What didn’t I do? What could I have done better?”
What this highlights for me is an issue that plagues churches (and I’m sure other communities too) and that is this: an inability to deal maturely with conflict. You can rest assured that whenever a conflict rears its ugly head in a congregation it will often be handled poorly. This is because growing in spiritual and emotional maturity has never really been that much of a priority in churches. Or we equate intellectual knowledge of theology and the Bible with spiritual maturity. Our discipleship has been largely from the neck up. So and so knows so much about the Bible. They’re such a mature and wise believer. Maybe. But maybe not.
I think when it comes to sorting out our thoughts on this stuff, there are a few points that need to be made. One, there will be conflict in churches. Let’s face facts. Stick enough people in a church community and have them spend enough time worshipping and working together, someone will eventually get bent out of shape, annoyed, frustrated and, yes, even hurt. This is going to happen. Count on it.
Facing this is important. Think about it. How many times have you heard people express dismay or disgust at how Christians have behaved? How many people have left churches precisely because someone else in the church has been mean or unkind to them and the shock of this pushed them away? To say nothing of unintentional slights or careless words spoken in haste from otherwise caring people.
Years ago, I was sitting in Tim Horton’s and I overheard a conversation. One person said to another, “You should be in church on Sunday.” The other person said, “Why? I’m just as good as anyone in church.” As if being in church is supposedly for those who are better than others or if the point was simply outward behaviourial change.
But being a Christian and therefore going to church is not about sin management. If it were, the church writ large would have to be judged a spectacular failure.
However, this leads us to the second thing: we are sinners. 1 John 1:8 reminds us: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Accepting Jesus, so to speak, does not change this reality. Now, this reality is not an excuse. We shouldn’t sin so that grace may abound, no. Just because we are tempted to sin is no reason to throw up our hands in resignation, proceed with our sin, and presume God’s forgiveness. But neither should we be altogether surprised when someone who confesses Christ as Lord actually sins–and perhaps against you.
Being able to acknowledge that we are sinners in constant need of grace, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, even outside of specific conflicts, positions us to anticipate those moments when even followers of Jesus fail to love one another. Expecting the Christians around us to be perfect is a recipe for disappointment in the church.
Think of it this way. When we sin, heinously or not, God is not surprised. Our sins of action or inaction do not take him off guard. Why? Because he knows who we are. He knows who I am. He knows who you are. And when it comes to churches, he also knows how the combination of these people in this place will lead to problems. Jesus knows your church, both its strengths and failings.
All this to make clear that my sin reverberates through the church much like a rock thrown in still water. There is, pardon the pun, a ripple effect.
Indeed, that is in part why we gather as a church. We need constant reminding of the good news. We need help to live as Jesus calls us to live. We need confession and absolution when we fail. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to uphold us in prayer, to admonish us, and to encourage us. It is through the ministry of the Body of Christ that God intends to heal us and make us whole by his Holy Spirit. Simply put, we need ongoing repentance and forgiveness. Thankfully, God is more than willing. 1 John 1:9 assures us: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
But when we are unwilling or unable for whatever reason to own our sin, and to accept that our fellow Christians are also sinners, conflicts in the church, big or small, become the very thing we are ill-equipped to handle with honesty, mercy and wisdom.
It strikes me as revealing that in many churches, we speak much about the cross, about redemption, even forgiveness, but we never actually confess sin to God, much less to one another in our public worship. Yet in James 5:16 we read: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
This is a problem. Much of the church culture with which I am familiar is deeply uncomfortable with the biblical practice of confessing our sins to one another, primarily, I think, because we largely don’t feel safe doing so. But I think this is because we simply haven’t found ways of doing so that are genuine and safe.
This is my next point. I think there needs to be some means of acknowledging in public worship our sins against God and one another.
Now, it’s fair to ask: Is confessing sin in our public worship important? Why can I not confess my own sins in the quiet of my home, away from the judgmental gaze of the person sitting behind me in church on a Sunday morning? More to the point, doesn’t Jesus tell me to pray privately?
Yes, Jesus does instruct his followers to pray in private. Here’s what he actually says:
Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:5-6
But the context, as always in Scripture, is vital. Jesus was contrasting sound spiritual practice with the sort that sought the reward of public recognition. And there is a world of difference between praying for the applause of others and confessing our sins to one another. Consider what Paul writes:
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.Colossians 3:12-14
We can’t obey Scripture like this in the privacy of our home away from other believers.
Moreover, the problem with restricting all confession to our private prayers is that this neglects the very real fact that my sin doesn’t only affect me. We tend to have a very individualistic outlook even as Christians, given we are called to accountability with other believers. So we conclude: If no one knows my sin, how can it affect anyone else? Yet, even my most private sin impacts others. I don’t exist in a spiritual vacuum. My relationship with God is not cordoned off from the relationships I have with the people in my church. Whenever something is off between myself and my Lord, things will be off in how I relate to people in church. All of our sin is relational, both vertically and horizontally.
Take, for example, a sin of omission: the neglect of prayer and Bible reading. I would think of this as sin because I am failing to avail myself of two primary means of grace God provides so I can draw nearer to him and become more Christlike, which is his will for me. And if I am not doing this as a member of Christ’s church, then I am also unable to bless other people in the church. If I am not a prayerful person (or hopefully and gradually becoming a more prayerful person, which is where most of us are), then this will profoundly affect my participation on any church committee, board, or ministry team. For instance, I may want to push for a decision that needs more prayer. Or to put it another way, someone who is being more deeply formed by their time in Scripture may bring wisdom to the table someone who neglects time in Scripture cannot.
One means of this is to include a unison prayer of confession. Of course as I say this, let me confess: as a pastor I have not yet led our congregation to do this. In my pastoral prayers, I have often (but not always) included such words of repentance, an acknowledgement of our sin, and an assurance of forgiveness. This is not the same, however, as giving the congregation an opportunity to say such words themselves. That matters.
Take this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as an example:
Almighty God and Father, we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, raise us up to serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.Book of Common Prayer (2019)
Praying this or a similar prayer in public worship is not only a matter of confessing particular sins of which we are aware. I sin without always being aware of it. I don’t always decide to sin; I am sinful. Since I am a sinful person, everything I am and do is tainted by sinfulness. That is, sin concerns more than discrete sinful actions; it concerns my innate tendency to choose sinfully.
I think such congregational prayers would allow us to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners and our relationships with one another stand in regular need of spiritual repair. Incorporating prayers of confession and assurances of forgiveness into our public worship also means we needn’t divulge personal information in an indiscrete way. There may be occasions when confession of specific sins during times of public worship is actually important and necessary, but in such cases leaders need to act with sensitivity, wisdom, grace, and discernement. Confession is meant to lead to healing, not to deeper shame or embarrassment.
Here’s the thing: I am not saying that simply praying such words, however we choose to do so, in our congregational worship is a silver bullet against the poor handling of sin and conflict in the church. But we are still responsible as brothers and sisters in Christ to cultivate a spiritual environment where we can have a mature assessment of our mutual sinfulness and deeper appreciation of God’s grace in Christ. Doing this in community is how we work the gospel into our relationships. The church needs the leaven of humility and honesty to be healthy and effective. Because it’s simply not enough for those of us who are Christians, who confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, to try and deal with sin outside of congregational life. This risks an evasion of the very reality we are seeking to acknowledge: that we are indeed sinners against God and one another and that God in Christ has made possible reconciliation.