The following essay is written by Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor in Cayman Islands and one of the speakers for the upcoming Desiring God Pastors’ Conference. I’m posting it with a written permission from him:
I have a new and growing conviction. It’s occupying a lot of my thoughts these days… good thoughts, I think. I don’t know why it hasn’t always been a conviction, at least not quite in this way. But, nonetheless, I am convinced that one of my fundamental objectives as a pastor is to prevent church splits from happening.
I don’t mean that it’s my responsibility to make sure no one leaves, or to settle every dispute in a way that preserves unity at all costs. No, there’ll be times when a “split” will humanly speaking be inevitable, and I trust that the Lord has good purposes in causing or allowing them to happen.
What I mean is this: I have some basic responsibilities as a pastor. I must teach and preach God’s Word; I must pray; I must be an example; and, I must carry on a visitation ministry. That’s basically what I think a pastor is to do (admittedly a bit oversimplified). But I am increasingly convinced that I am to do those things with a particular perspective. I’m to do those things with an eye toward the developing and continuing unity of the church. Said negatively, I’m to work in such a way as to prevent the splintering of Christ’s local body in my charge.
It seems to me that preventing splits is a bit like preventative health care. Most of us trolly through life without caring much about our health. We eat any and most everything. We don’t exercise regularly. Our sleep habits are terrible. We overwork ourselves at high-stress jobs, and we seldom take vacations. Then we go to the doctor for a checkup or because some pain or another won’t go away. That’s when we hear the news: our bodies have actually been carrying on a covert coup against us. We’re told that our blood pressure is high. Cholestorol is clogging up blood flow. And then there is the dreaded “O” word that seems to be wreaking havoc on youth in particular–obesity.
We react with surprise at the news. Not the kind of surprise that’s completely unsuspecting; we knew that neglecting ourselves could result in these things. No, we’re surprised because it happened to us. “High blood pressure… that’s aunt Annie’s problem. Obesity… that’s uncle Bobo’s issue.” The reality of the problem–completely preventable if it had been at least a part of our focus–comes crashing home. We’re sick and now there is only the drudgery of changing life-long habits and/or undergoing some radical procedure.
I think church splits are a lot like that. Churches adopt lifelong bad habits, deny the warning signs (the sleeplessness, headaches and chest pains), and then are surprised when part of the body carries out the silent coup. They don’t think it will happen to them no matter how bad things get. And then it does and the pain is great.
There were early warning signs:
- Growing numbers of cliques and factions. Cliques present themselves as “natural friendships,” groups of people who “get along” because of some shared interests, backgrounds, or ideas. But without care, these groups will harden into impenetrable factions that use their common interests as a rallying cry against the rest of the body.
- Low concern for the church qua church. We live in a Christian era that stresses the individual like no era before it. Most people think Christianity is about me and “my personal relationship with Jesus.” That littly phrase, “my personal,” acting as a kind of double possessive, is deadly to the body. And it’s often compounded by the next warning signal.
- Self-interests dominate group interests. If life is all about “my personal relationship” then I’m likely to be quite self-seeking. I want to be stimulated. I want to be served. I want my preferences met. I… I… I… till there is no “we” left. And where that exists, there will be little concern–certainly not ultimate concern–for the needs and mission of the larger group, the church.
- Isolated and absent members. It’s understandable, given the first three symptoms, that some number of members will be isolated in the body, without any meaningful relationships, or absent altogether. Large numbers of isolated and absent members actually have the peculiar effect of making it more difficult to pastor those who are attending. Isolated and absent members make it more difficult to know who is in your care and who is not. And at various points they will cause you to expend a lot of energy trying to “catch up with them” and diagnose their spiritual state. But there’s another problem. These isolated and absentee members actually undermine the very fabric of fellowship and relationships in the body. They make it normal to be a part of a church and simultaneously anonymous and uninvolved with others. So, there becomes no relational context in the church to support a wider concern for the church, making splits easier to ponder.
- Lack of humility. Pride is a lethal foe. Combine pride with any of the symptoms above and you can just hear the emergency room attendant yelling “STAT” into the loud speaker. Pride surfaces itself in an unwillingness to hear feedback, be it a word of correction, instruction and even encouragement. Pride in the cliques says, “we’ve got it all together and those folks over there need to get with us.” Pride in “lone ranger Christians” contends that she/he doesn’t need the church. Absent members exhibit pride when they say, “Leave me alone; this is my life.” This pride is deadly serious.
- Mixed allegiance to the pastor(s)/elders. Sometimes some members feel a fierce allegiance to the pastor(s), while others feel fairly opposed or indifferent to him/them. And when church members clump together on the poles of love and dislike, you can just about be certain that some significant number of them have taken their eyes off the true Head of the Church, Jesus. One cries “I’m with Appollos,” and another cries “I’m with Paul.” The fact that everyone is not crying “I’m with Jesus” and “We follow our pastors as they follow Jesus” should be of real concern.
- Low emphasis on the Word of God. I can’t state this problem better than David Wells’ observation (HT: Mark Dever). Quite simply, if we lose the centrality, sufficiency, and authority of the Word of God, we unravel the church as we abandon the only rule of faith and conduct.
These are some of the early warning signals for a church split. Imperceptible at their start, they grow very slowly in most cases. When you feel mild discomfort from them, they’ve usually rooted themselves to some extent. And by the time you feel real pain, those roots have formed huge balls and arteries that wrap themselves around the foundation of the house. Excavating them will be painful and costly. But in many cases, by the time you feel the pain, the conditions for a split are quite abundant.
I’m convinced that it’s my job to pastor in such a way that I try to ward off, retard, uproot or cut out these problems before they give birth to greater sin. I need to approach the basic task of pastoring with at least one eye toward prevention. And I need to look beyond the horizon of this present congregation to consider those who are coming after us, to take the long view with the hopes of leaving a congregation that would be healthy for generations should the Lord tarry.
Since pastors tend to impress upon their congregations something of their own personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and that impress tends to linger through subsequent generations and pastorates, for good and for ill, I need to work hard at being an example of one that loves like Jesus loves and one that encourages and teaches others to pursue unity and peace. That’s my task, I think. That’s the task of every Christian. In the next couple of posts, we’ll explore some ways of thinking about and living out this task.