Recently, I spent some time with a pastor friend who was grieved over a family who had left the church where he leads and serves. He, like all pastors, understands that people will come and go as he fulfills his ministry, so he was not pouting for himself. The struggle that had landed upon his heart was that this family had left over matters of preference. They had been at that church for many years and did not personally like the changes they saw occurring. These were not doctrinal changes that they shared with him as they left. What compelled them to break away is that some of their personal desires about worship, ministry and “atmosphere” were not being validated by the pastor. They were being heard by him as they periodically voiced their displeasure, but they were not being obeyed by him. They expected him to change things based on their preferences. Eventually, after much dialogue with my pastor friend, they knew that their preferences would not be prioritized. So, they left a body of believers with whom they had faithfully worshiped, served and sacrificed for many years. My friend had no tears on his face, but there was a tremble in his voice when he said to me, “The religious spirit is the strongest weapon that Satan uses to prevent breakthrough in churches.” I must say that I agree with him.
“In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” – Matthew 15:9
We must discipline ourselves to humbly admit that we all have strong preferences when it comes to how our faith is lived out in community with other believers. Each of us is inclined a certain way. Eventually, because our inclinations do not all run parallel to others in the Church, conflict will arise to varying degrees. Most of the time, mature believers can find a way to place their own personal desires on a lower level in order to obey the teaching found in Philippians 2:3, where we are commanded to consider others more important than our own selves. We learn to be deferential as we grown in grace and truth. The Christian who always seems to need his or her own preferences accommodated is an immature believer. The problem is that they usually assume that their strongly held preferences are the will of the Lord for all other people, therefore they view themselves as the mature believer. Because of this, they actually conclude that they are objectively right and that those who disagree with them are objectively wrong. The error is that they fail to distinguish between their own subjective desires and the objective truth of God’s word. In conflict, because they are convinced that they alone are correct, they walk away from anything and anyone who offers another view. In the worst-case scenarios, this type of person falls under the assessment which Jesus spoke in Matthew 15:9 above: they worship Jesus in vain, with the commandments/traditions/preferences of humans superseding the objective truth of God.
I encourage all of us to study the New Testament letters of the Apostle Paul. Keep an intentional eye out for the scores of verses that reveal the priority for Christians to work hard at getting along with each other. Paul’s recipe for this is found in his repeated calls for us to lower ourselves, and to esteem others more important. He tells us to put up with each other in times of conflict. We are called to continue with one another. Romans 14-15 specifically focus on how we should navigate through issues wherein we have very strong personal convictions, while recognizing that other believers completely disagree with us. If you are a student of the Scriptures you will discover that there are only two valid reasons to break away from other believers:
- God calls you to a different assignment among another specific group of believers.
- There is false doctrine being taught and accepted by the body of believers with whom you are currently in covenant.
We do not get to leave over music. We are not permitted to walk away because of boredom with certain ministries. There is no permission for us to fly from the nest when we are being stretched beyond our comfort zones. The Holy Spirit does not do comfort zones, so we should not be surprised when He does not honor our own. We do not give in to the seduction of more generationally relevant ministries down the road. When (not if!) our feelings are hurt by someone, we are not to take our ball and go home. Seasons of change arise within local churches and we are to recognize that the assigned leaders of that church have been placed there to discern the will of the Father, strategize how to accomplish that will, and begin to move in ways that guarantee a fruitful outcome. For many it is hard to hear that the Kingdom is not a democracy wherein everyone gets an equal vote. Jesus Christ is the Supreme Head who has appointed human leadership to facilitate the continual advancing of His Kingdom. The vast majority of Christians are called to follow those leaders, and to serve with the gifts granted to them through the Holy Spirit. To walk away when our preferences are not honored is, perhaps, one of the most un-Christlike actions we might take. Jesus was constantly surrounded by people who fell short of His character, commands and expectations. He never walked away from His own, no matter how flawed they were. Yet, in the Church, it happens all the time by us.
When I left my friend’s office that day, he was smiling and praising God. His focus was on the King. He carries in his hear that ongoing reality of church leaders: a smidge of pain mixed in with a heap of praise. The majority of people whom we shepherd as pastors are a delight. I, like my friend, hurt deeply over those controlled by a religious spirit. They walk away. Then they eventually walk away from the next place. And the next. Usually, they do not have enough years to learn that the problem was inside of their own hearts the whole time. They simply could not bear the thought of being with others who held different views and nuanced values, so they were always starting over but never completing anything. We hurt, but mostly we hurt for them.
The religious spirit: they carried it with them wherever they went. It was spiritual carbon monoxide, silent and undetected, it killed the unity they could have had with other saints headed toward the same eventual home. The potential is there for all of us if we are not humble and wise. Let’s ensure that our own stories never hold those same sad chapters.