How to Kill Your Church (pt 2)

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I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel– not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:10-17 NIV)

In Part 1 of this 2-part article, I espoused that church attenders kill their churches when they fail to respond properly to the leaders God has placed over them – their pastors and elders. That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Mistreating and failing to respond properly to church leaders is often symptomatic of deeper heart problems in churches. Mistreating one’s church leaders is often what is seen most visibly; like the top 10% of an iceberg. It’s the problem that eventually surfaces above the water and gets noticed, at least by the church’s leaders. Like icebergs, 90% of an unhealthy church’s problems lurk beneath the surface and stalk in the shadows where they are known to exist but are much less obviously seen.

Suicide can be defined as “the intentional causing of one’s own death.” Self-inflicted death can be determined to be “accidental,” but technically suicide is an intentional action on a person’s own part against themselves that results in their death. Sadly, churches that allow certain sins to become deep-seated parts of their under-the-surface culture are committing church suicide.

Churches almost always die as a result of actions taken against themselves.

What does that mean? The treatment of Church leaders is a contributing factor in churches becoming unhealthy and dying, but Christians’ actions toward each other (under the surface) is almost always the number one factor in churches becoming unhealthy and dying.

The Apostle Paul dealt with this in one of the unhealthiest churches we see in the New Testament – Corinth. It’s interesting to note the typically Pauline sentiments missing in the opening statements of a very lengthy letter to a very unhealthy church in 1 Corinthians 1. The typical Pauline platitudes and niceties found in many of Paul’s other epistles are suspiciously absent in the first 9 verses of chapter 1. Rather than commend them on anything, Paul dives right into the church’s problems. He doesn’t pussyfoot around either but gets right to the heart of the matter. What was Corinth’s biggest problem? Simply put, it was the Corinthians themselves – they were the problem that was killing their church.

What Paul decries in his first epistle to the Corinthians is too often played out in various ways in modern churches. What were the Corinthians guilty of that was killing their church that is so often seen under the surface in churches around America today?

Disregard Body Unity

Repeatedly, the New Testament commands believers to be unified (Eph 4:3, 11-13; Jn 17:23; Rom 12:16; et. al.). Unity is how we think and feel about each other. It’s how we perceive each other that bleeds over into how we treat each other in the Church. Unity is a fragile thing that is all-too-often easily broken by some selfishness of the heart and mind.

The sin of personal preference

When church attenders lapse into focusing on their personal preferences over Body unity they will fracture the Body. This is seen in the consumer mindset with which so many believers approach their churches. Paul, writing to Timothy, spoke of the coming day when “people will not put up with sound doctrine” but will make church about “suiting their own desires” (2 Tim 4:3). It’s interesting to note the context of Paul’s statement. He is not speaking about those outside the church who desire their own preferences above sound doctrine, but those within it. They develop “itching ears;” a craving to hear what they want to hear – to get out of church what they want. These church attendees approach church from the perspective of what they can experience, the information they can learn, the encouragement they can receive, etc. They want things their way and are at church to get rather than give.

The spiritual cousin to a consumer mindset of “What can I get out of church” is the perspective of personal needs. Those who approach church from this perspective come to the church with the presupposition of getting their needs met. When that doesn’t happen, church leaders here “My needs just aren’t getting met here” as they exit to the church down the street. What these believers fail to understand is that the Church does not exist to meet our needs. Yes, those within the Body of Christ are supposed to help, encourage, admonish one another, but that’s often not what these believers mean. Every time the New Testament refers to an individual believer insisting on his or her needs being met it’s with a negative connotation. These individuals are very self-absorbed in their needs and fail to see how they should be investing to help the rest of the Body.

A third prominent faction of those who disregard Body unity is seen among those who make church about what they like. They want worship, liturgy, message, ministries, etc. tailored to their particular likes and personal preferences. Scripture knows nothing of the church ever being about personal preferences. The worship wars of the last few decades is evidence of such a sinful mindset. Paul rebuts this mindset in Romans 14. He says that those who get grumpy or touchy about personal preferences – seeking to impose them on the rest of the Body – are spiritually weak. In fact, the whole problem in Romans 14 is personal preference. Those who lapse into the weakness of personal preference make issues where there is not clear right or wrong altars upon which they will gladly sacrifice others for the sake of their preferences. They fail to approach the rest of the Body with mutual grace and latitude (Rom 14:10) that should characterize Christians.

When believers approach the local church from the mindset of getting something out of it, having their needs met, or seeing their personal preferences reign supreme, they are selfishly disregarding Body unity and killing the church.

The sin of individual isolation

There is another subset of individuals who disregard Body unity; those who want to live in individual isolation. These are those believers who come to church but do not purposefully contribute to the health and effectiveness of the Body on-mission.

The Church is always spoken of as a cohesive whole comprised of individual parts. The metaphors of body (1 Cor 12:27), building (1 Cor 3:9, 16), and family (1 Pet 2:17) underscore this truth. As all three of these metaphors are wholes made up of parts, so is the Church and so is every local church.  Jesus never designed His disciples to function in isolation of one another (1 Cor 12:7). When believers seek to slip in and slip out of church; seldom or never engaging the rest of the Body in ministry, they hobble the whole church (1 Cor 12:18-26) and keep the church from becoming the mature, stable Body Jesus wants it to be (Eph 4:13-14).

When believers approach the church from the perspective of individual isolation – slipping in and out without committing to developing strong relationships with and ministering alongside of the rest of the Body they are killing their local churches.

The Corinthians did this masterfully. They were fractured in the way they looked at each other and the church and were among some of the most selfish people mentioned in the New Testament.

Destroy Body Harmony

Here I am not using unity and harmony synonymously but differentiating between them. While unity speaks to how the church attendees view each other, harmony is how they treat and interact with one another.

Handle interpersonal conflict wrongly

Put two people in the same room long enough and they will clash with each other over something. Every believer is a sinner who’s been redeemed but still struggles with his fleshly sinful desires. Because of this, there will be interpersonal conflict among people in the local church (Rom 12:16, 18). Let’s take it a step further. Not only are we guaranteed to have interpersonal conflict, but we may very well sin against each other at times too. Our sin and selfishness are bound to make us rub each other the wrong way at times in the Body of Christ. We’re human and should expect it.

The problem comes not so much in the conflict as it does in how we handle it. Church people often create greater issues by mishandling conflict. Rather than approach one another from the vantage of mutual love and peace, we strike out at each other. When we love each other like Christ loves us, we won’t be so sensitive to the hurts inflicted by others (Jn 13:34).

The key to handling conflict in the church is to let peace take precedence over offense. We should see conflict as our opportunity to show grace (Gal 2:11-12 w/ 2 Pet 3:14-16). Therefore, we should not run from conflict with each other, but run to one another in love to resolve conflict and restore harmony quickly.

Sin too is to be handled from the position of mutual forgiveness and restoration (Matt 18:15-16; 5:23-24). Christ outlines how to handle intentional sin against you by a brother in the church in Matthew 18. The problem is too many believers want to use Jesus’ teaching as a means of revenge rather than the method of relational reconciliation He intended it to be (Matt 18:15, 21-22; 2 Thess 3:13-15).

When church people handle interpersonal conflict and sin selfishly, it destroys Body harmony. We cease to function as the cohesive unit Jesus designed us to be. Left lurking under the surface matters of Body unity and harmony will fracture a church and kill it by breeding discord, and bitterness. The Corinthians were guilty of this. Sadly, so are too many local churches today.

 Dive into Character Assassinations

When we leave the epistle to the Corinthians and broaden the scope of our investigation, we find that the New Testament reveals other ways believers hurt one another and kill their local churches.

 Lying to and/or about each other

You might think that Christians, those who claim to love and follow Jesus Christ, would never lie to or about another believer, but it happens more than we’d like to admit. Paul tells the Colossian believers, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9 NIV). The way Paul phrases the command can legitimately be translated, “Stop lying to each other.” There is no reason for Paul to state it this way unless the Colossians had a problem with lying to one another. Believers should be different than nonbelievers in this area. When we lie to or about one another we are killing our churches from the inside-out.

Gossiping about each other

Gossip does severe harm to the health and well-being of local churches. It is a church-killer that cannot and should not be tolerated among the ranks of believers. Sadly, gossip is often masked and difficult to spot. It hides under the guise of sharing, prayer requests, and concerns that are expressed to anyone other than the person to whom they should be expressed. When expressed to or about leadership, gossips too often cloak their bile in mantles of “Someone said…”, “People are saying…”, etc. without disclosing any names so issues can be properly addressed. Scripture likens gossip to cancer that spreads throughout the body and kills it (2 Tim 2:16-17). Gossip tears down the Body of Christ (Eph 4:29), reveals that the gossiper is off-mission and has way too much time on their hands (1 Tim 5:13), and puts the gossiper in the place of God; determining what’s lawful and what’s not (Jas 4:11). Because of its insidious nature and overwhelmingly harmful outcomes, gossip is a church-killer that cannot go unchecked.

Slandering one another’s character

Similar to lying to and or about one another and gossiping about each other, Christians contribute to the death of their churches when they slander each other’s character. Scripture sees a case of this in several places where slander is listed among the sins Christians are to avoid or are guilty of (e.g. 2 Cor 12:20). Quite literally, slander is blaspheming the character of another person. It is speaking evilly, abusively, or insultingly about a fellow believer. Often, Scripture links slander with anger, wrath and malice indicating a serious heart problem on the slanderer’s part. It is routinely used as a form of vindictive revenge that should be avoided among the redeemed. Slander is horrible church-killer that no believer should be guilty of using.

Holding grudges against each other

At some point, every believer is going to be offended by or sinned against by another church attender. If we hold grudges and harbor anger and resentment in our hearts, we are not only hurting ourselves but killing the entire Body. None of us has the authority to hold grudges or revenge ourselves against anyone; that’s God’s job (Rom 12:19-20). When we hold grudges against our Christian family we fail to exercise true Christlike forgiveness (Eph 4:31-32; Col 3:12-13) and hinder the church’s gospel mission (Jas 1:20). Those who hold grudges often devolve into the other aforementioned sins, so this too is a viable church-killer.

Making powerplays against church leaders

This could easily be included in Part 1 of this topic, but I wanted to explore it from a different vantage here.

The Apostle John dealt with a professing believer named Diotrephes who was guilty of this exact sin (3 Jn 9-11). Diotrephes was apparently undercutting the recognized leadership of the church in order to put himself in a position of influence so that he could move the church in the direction he desired. John chided him for “spreading malicious nonsense” about him and his entourage, refusing to welcome other believers who perhaps came from other churches, and hindering those within his own church from welcoming visitors to the point of putting them out of the fellowship if they did. These kinds of powerplays show a lack of faith in God for the leaders He puts over the local church This kind of conduct will fracture church unity and obstruct the mission of the church; killing any church it infects if left unchecked.

When church attenders delude themselves into believing they are helping the church by tearing down their brothers and sisters through subversive or blatant character assassinations, they are in truth doing the opposite. They are not helping the church. Rather, they are killing it from within.

 Disengage from Body Cooperation

There is a much more common and passive way church attenders kill local churches. They simply disengage from cooperating with the rest of the Body in active, faithful, reliable ministry. Without even realizing it, these believers contribute to their church’s demise in two seemingly innocuous ways.

 Ignore the common mission

The local church is like a train. Each attendee can be thought of as a car in the line. We are each connected to each other in a push-pull relationship to help each other move down the tracks. The engine is the Holy Spirit who empowers the train to move down the tracks going from where it is to where it needs to be. Jesus, as the Head of the Church, is the engineer who determines where the train should go. The tracks are the believer’s common mission – the Great Commission, the ministry of reconciliation (Matt 28:19-20; 2 Cor 5:18-19). Just like any train, the engineer guides the train along its journey under the power the engine provides. He determines the destination and route. The cars work in tandem, each connected to each other in a symbiotic transference of the engine’s power to move each other forward down the tracks. If one care separates from the others disaster can strike. The tracks, however, are integral in the formula. Without solid tracks upon which to run, the train wouldn’t go anywhere.

When believers who are part of a local church choose to disengage from the mission of the church, the whole train can derail (Phil 1:14-17). One believer’s resistance to the church’s mission puts a drag on every “car” attached to him. Should that one believer jump the tracks entirely, he can derail the whole church.

 Do absolutely nothing

Seems harmless to do nothing, doesn’t it? When the local church is in view, doing nothing is dangerous. God created the Church, and its local manifestation, to function like a body (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). As such, every part has a role to play to keep the body healthy and working effectively. Every part is necessary to the health and well-being of the whole. When a believer sits back and refuses to get involved in the mission and ministry of the church the rest of the Body hurts (1 Cor 12:14-21). Just like being a perpetual “couch potato” can kill your physical body, doing nothing can kill a church.

 Conclusion

When a church gets unhealthy and enters the throes of death, it is almost always a result of dissension against the leaders God has given the Church and how the parts of the Body treat one another. You see, when we disregard our unity and value personal preference and individualism over the whole we are killing our churches. When we destroy our harmony by mishandling interpersonal conflict and sin and start attacking each other we are killing our churches. When we simply sit back and do nothing – attend in spotty spurts and refuse to engage the mission with the rest of the Body we are killing our churches.

The answer is not to abandon the church. It’s never to stay away or find another place to go. No, the answer is to commit to the local church’s common mission over preference, to treat each other with the same love Christ has given to us and use everything God has given us to join together to see His mission realized.

Do that and this church will not only survive; it will thrive beyond your wildest imaginations. Don’t do it and you’re contributing to the death of your local church.

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