Antidotes Against Church Politics
Some time ago, I met a young man who had been in a Bible Study group together with me in the University. As we had lost contact for several years, I asked him about his faith and where he was worshipping. His reply was that he was no longer in any church. I must have looked surprised, for he quickly added that he was still a believer. When I inquired further as to his present situation, he revealed that he had given up going to church after worshipping at two different churches and being terribly disappointed by the politics in both churches. He concluded that every church has ugly politics and that it is just too draining to have to bear with it. Although I was quite new in the church that I was in, I knew that there were politics too, and so I told him that politics in the church is inevitable, but that it is the duty of every Christian to assemble for worship (Heb 10:25). I also assured him that if the church is well founded on the Word of God, then the politics in the church would be negligible and I invited him to come to church with me, believing that this was the case in the church I came from. My friend could not be persuaded.
My optimism with regards to my church remained for a couple more years—despite warnings from strangers we did not know who were former members of the church, and well-meaning brethren and ministers who candidly explained that if I ever become more visible in the church, I would face the full brunt of Satan’s devices through jealous members in the church. I could not have imagined at that time how accurate that counsel was, but as the years went by, my confidence waxed and waned. Soon, I began to feel the exasperation and pain associated with the politicking of members and leaders of the church where I was in. One day, while pouring out my woes to one of the pastors, I was glibly condoled with the words: "Welcome to the world!"
Ironically, in the several years I had worked in the secular vocation, I had never encountered politics of this nature and intensity. Could it be my expectation for believers or professing believers is too high? Could it be that I was just being too sensitive? But if that were the case, why is it that practically everyone I talked to admitted or complained that there was politics in the church? Or could it simply be that politicking in the church serves Satan’s purpose much more than politics in the world? Does this not explain the observation of Herman Bavinck, that venerable Dutch theologian, that "Ordinary politics sometimes has a sordid side; politics in church affairs always has." Bavinck was himself a victim of church politics who was forced to retire early from the ecclesiastical scene.
But is politics in the Church really inevitable? The Church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:12) and the holy nation (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9). How can it be that politics must be the feature of the church? It is true that politics is a result of sin and as long as we are in this world, we will continue to sin though we be regenerate (1Jn 1:8). But the Apostle Paul also instructed us that having been renewed in Christ, we are new creatures: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor 5:17). The Lord Himself said: "Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44-45). In other words, politics in the church, is not only not to be condoned as norm, but it is certainly not inevitable. Why should it be? It is a church of Christ, not of Satan, and we have been freed from the bondage of sin and Satan to serve Christ.
But how may we eradicate the politics that may already be in the church, or to prevent the appearance and ferment of politics in the church? Let me suggest 7 antidotes which may be used preventively or offensively:
1. Lowliness of Mind
The first and most important antidote to politics is no doubt the cultivation of a Christ-like humility. Politicking, whether in the secular office, or in the church usually occurs as a result of envy. When allowed to brew, envy frequently manifests itself in backbiting or backstabbing,—which is the most common form of politicking. In the church at Philippi, there was apparently such a problem between two women by the name of Euodias and Syntyche (Phil 4:2). We do not know what was the cause of the dispute, but it was probably due to some disagreement for which there were no clear- cut right or wrong. This is probably why Paul did not attempt to resolve the problem but asked his fellow worker Syzygus (yokefellow) to help them to be of the same mind. A contemporary incident which was brought to my attention may well give us some idea. There was a respected minister of the Gospel who travels frequently, and each year he would spend his birthday at one of the numerous churches which he established. And each year a particular woman in the church would remember his birthday and organise a party for him. One year, however, another woman decided to take the initiative to plan a birthday for the minister. The result? When the first woman found out: she was furious, and a tiff ensued.
What was Paul’s counsel? He said: "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil 2:3). In an earlier letter, to the Romans, he had given the same counsel: "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another" (Rom 12:10). But now, he emphasises that such a manifestation of humility is a mark of Christ-likeness (Phil 2:5ff) and that strife results in the church when members in the church clamour for honour and attention.
Let each of us examines our motives for our actions. Let none of us serve for the sake of attention or even self-satisfaction. And while we must be mindful of our gifts, talents and calling, let us not harbour any I-can-do-it-better notion. Even when it is a matter of calling or gifts, say of music, the more gifted person should not ever think: I can do it better. We must always serve when opportunities present themselves or when initiative is called for, but we must never allow the thought that I could have done it better enter our mind when someone else takes upon himself or herself a task which we could also have done. Let us rather thank God for the brother or sister’s willingness to serve Him despite his or her limitations. The two-talent man was not required to produce three talents!
2. Faithful Wounds
"Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful" (Prov 27:5-6). These aphorisms of Solomon are so often repeated and yet so little practised in the churches today. I know this to be true through the many occasions when I had to counsel members of the churches where I ministered, who came to me with complains against other members of the church. Amazingly, the complaints usually came as surprises because from all appearances there did not seem to any strain between the parties involved. Could it be that our attempts to be genial and polite is not motivated by charity (1 Pet 4:8), but by a selfish desire not to be seen as being fastidious? But then the "kisses of an enemy are deceitful."
The Lord Jesus teaches us so clearly that if we know someone who have something against us that we must seek reconciliation (Matt 5:23-24), and that if we have something against someone, that we must lovingly approach the person to tell him his fault (Matt 18:15ff). I believe that if this principle were followed, there would be little cause for any politicking in the church. But sadly, whenever, I ask the complainant whether he has spoken to the ‘guilty’ party, the answer would be negative. And when I suggest that he approaches the person based on Matthew 18, or that I approach the person, the answer reply would often be "No, don’t tell her" or "No, it is just my feeling." This has happened so many times, that I was actually surprised when on one occasion, someone actually agreed to do what I suggested. But those common answers, I am afraid, will eventually manifest itself in some form of politicking if it has not already begun. One who knows the fault of another and refuse to tell him or her is doing a great disservice and becomes guilty of the same fault that he complains about (Ezk 3:18). On the other hand, it is just a perception, than the complainant has no reason to complain. Rather, he has all the reason to repent of his prejudice.
Beloved, it is my hope and prayer that we may consciously take heed to this antidote that we may, to some extend at least, inoculate ourselves from painful politics as our church matures.
3. Rumour Management
This point is closely related to our last. When someone comes to me or anyone else in the church with an unsubstantiated complaint, whether we like it or not, a rumour has already begun. How far this rumour will spread will depend on what the recipient does with it. "Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth" (Prov 26:20). If you pass on the rumour, you become the wood for the fire and strife that will result. What should we do with rumours? I believe there are only three proper responses to rumour. The first is to ignore it, especially if there is no way for us to verify the source. The second is to trace the origin of the rumour and the third is to verify the truth of what is said. This second response is unpleasant for many of us, but I believe has great value for stopping rumour mongering in the church. I had opportunity to use this approach on numerous occasions. On most of these occasions, I could trace to the rumour to the originator and confront the person based on Matthew 18. This is one of the fastest ways to stop rumours. The third approach is a little easier than the second, but must be handled very prudently and with great sensitivity. Again, I had occasion to tell those who informed me of certain other persons that I would verify. Frequently, this resulted in panic reactions of trying to tone down what was said. And when I did verify what was said, I had often discovered that what was said was grossly exaggerated.
Beloved, talebearing or rumour mongering is just another word for lying and bearing false testimonies. It is a breaking of the 9th commandment. Moreover, when it develops into backbiting and backstabbing, it becomes violation of the 6th commandment: murder. Let us be very conscious to guard ourselves against this sin, and to try to eradicate it from our church. "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully" (Ps 24:3-4).
4. Diplomacy Vs Politics
The fourth antidote to politics is to know how thin the line between diplomacy and politics is. The apostle Paul, referring to his own ministry said: "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ" (Gal 1:10). Years ago, the implication of this verse made a very deep impression on my heart and I resolved with the Lord’s help to follow the pattern that Paul has set. In my naivety, I thought that if I follow this principle, all will be well. Well, it was not too long before I discovered that there are times when diplomacy may serve a situation well: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Prov 25:11). Errors, false views and injustice need not always be attacked vehemently. In fact, Paul taught Timothy: "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (2 Tim 2:24-25).
However, bear in mind that there is just a very thin line between diplomacy and politicking. Being over diplomatic renders a person wickedly political. What does it mean to be over diplomatic? I believe diplomacy become evil politics when known sin and error is tolerated without being mentioned at anytime. A person who is over-diplomatic may appear very winsome and charitable in the eyes of man, but in the eyes of God such a person is "strengthening the hands of the wicked" (Ezk 13:22; cf. v. 10) or as the case may be, strengthening the hands of wickedness.
May the Lord grant us firmness to speak against errors and falsehood and the wisdom and prudence to know how and when to speak.
5. Biblical Discipline
Biblical discipline has to do with dealing with sin and wickedness in the church. A church that refuses to exercise biblical discipline disqualifies herself from being a true Church of Christ. A church which knowingly maintains in her membership roll, individuals who have wilfully divorced from their spouses on unbiblical grounds or who have married unbelievers, disqualifies herself as a true church of Christ. Similarly, a church which refuses to investigate alleged wrong-doing by sweeping any allegations under the carpet is simply acting unbiblically, promoting politics and asking for trouble. Not only would sin be encouraged, but faithful members would be discouraged.
May the Lord grant us the grace and courage to confront allegations of sin that may surface in our church from time to time.
6. Confessionalism & Biblicalism
This is another "corporate-level" antidote. The point is very simple: politics usually occurs if there is no clear statement of faith in the church or if the church’s statement of faith is not adhered to. One of the purposes of the confession of the church, we must remember, isjuridical. This refers to its use in settling and avoiding disputes. It does so as a subordinate standard of the church with authority derived from the Scriptures (See Importance & Uses of Creeds in issue 1.14 dated 3 Oct 1999). When a church begins to act contrary to its constitution or against clear scriptural teachings, it immediately encourages confusion and strives as members are left wondering what is right and what is wrong. The church takes the polity of papalism as the pastor’s doctrine becomes the doctrine of the church, and any objection to the pastor’s doctrine is immediately stifled as being wrong even if the objection is based on the Confession of the church. "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? " (Ps 11:3).
Take a church in which the pastor’s wife begins to act as an assistant pastor or as a session member. What happens? Firstly, there is no biblical or confessional basis for her to act in that capacity, and so, while some may submit to her instructions on account of her being the pastor’s wife, others may legitimately feel upset about her taking upon herself unwarranted authority or her acting as Herodias. The result will be chaotic. The wife complains to her husband about certain members in the church she does not like, the members complain to each other about the pastor’s wife, etc. Then, secondly, there will always be those who will try to enter the pastor’s good books by giving a good impression to his wife!
May the Lord deliver us from such confusions and politicking. Let us strive to be true to our Confession and the Scriptures to do only what can be reasonably shown to be biblical. This way there will be no surprises and no attempts to guess as to whether something be right or wrong.
7. The "Informant Phenomenon"
One of the most debilitating forms of church politics, involves attempts to gain the favour of the most important person or persons in the church. The reasoning behind that is one of pride and recognition. This could be part of the problem in the Corinthian church when some members say, "I am of Paul", and others, "I am of Apollos" and others, "I am of Cephas" (1 Cor 1:12). This is a problem which is especially rampant in large churches where the pastor is practically the only one who makes decision or exercises authority in the church. When this happens there will inevitably be members who will style themselves as being the ‘informants’ of the pastor: to keep the pastor abreast with what is going on in the church. This may not be all that bad except that frequently, these ‘informants’ give biased information to the pastors which may cause the pastor to look upon them favourably as they also look upon other faithful members in the church with disfavour or suspicion.
How do we overcome or avoid such a unhealthy ecclesiastical situation? Firstly, of course, there must be a conscious effort by the pastor and members to discourage such politicking. However close the pastor may be to some members in the church, he should treat what is said about other members of the flock according to the third point above. Secondly, it may be wise not to allow the church to grow too big. What happens when the church grows too big? It believe that rather than adding assistant pastors, associate pastors etc, it may be better for the church to form separate congregations in which the members may be more intimately ministered unto.
Beloved, church politics, or in Biblical terms, —debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, divisions, evil surmisings, talebearing, favouritisms (2Cor 12:20; 1Cor 3:3; 1Tm 6:4, etc) provide the foothold for Satan to create trouble in the church, to diminish the testimony of the church and to make "the heart of the righteous sad" (Eph 4:27; Ezk 13:22). May the Lord deliver us from such as we make a conscious effort individually and corporately to eradicate it. Church politics is not inevitable! Until the day we are presented as a pure and spotless bride to Christ, may we seek to maintain such a purity that as a church we may bear glorious witness to the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.