by Joshua Crutchfield
Ten years ago, I was called to pastor my first church. At the ripe old age of twenty, and with zero pastoral experience, I moved to possibly the most beautiful area in all of Texas—San Saba. I had looked forward to this day since I was eight years old. I was attending Criswell College during this time, preparing for the ministry and was very eager to walk in the path of my calling. Finally my dream was a reality—I was a pastor. However, the dream that was blue skies and chipper birds quickly faded into the grim reality that God had called me to pastor a church at war. Like kids who clean their rooms, the church hid their mess well. I had no prior knowledge that there was an internal conflict wedging the church in two.
Needless to say, I did not survive long. They did not run me off or let me go, but the stress and the burden was unlike anything I had experienced before. Ultimately, I resigned due to the condition of my health. Physically and spiritually I was withering away. During my nine-month stint, the church more than doubled in size. We saw many people come to Christ, but unity and harmony were always missing. Most of the discord was found within the committees of the church. There was a committee for everything and some members held multiple chairs. This worked to their advantage on the council, for they then had multiple votes. From committee meetings to deacon meetings, unity in Christ was never found.
This story might sound slightly familiar to some who read this, because you may be going through something similar, but to the others who have never experienced such difficulties in ministry—don’t worry, you will. However, as you are going through these difficulties, or even before you go through these conflicts, have a proper perspective as to what the conflict truly is—spiritual.
I want to offer four things I have learned during this brief pastorate and now, being removed from it ten years, what I have learned afterwards. I cherish the time I was there and though ministry can be painfully overwhelming, there is no more great or wonderful calling than to shepherd God’s people.
1. Don’t Pick Sides
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he, like many pastors, had to confront a division within the body. This division would be almost unbelievable if it were not for Paul recording it for us. They were divided by baptism (1 Cor. 1:11–12)! Each person identified with the one who baptized him, and by this forged a rivalry. However, Paul did not join the fight by picking a side. No, in fact he distances himself from any side by claiming to only have baptized a few, and he was grateful that is was just a few (1 Cor. 1:14–16).
Had Paul taken a side, he would have been like a sledgehammer crashing down on a wedge, splitting wood. I did not know much when I started pastoring, but I knew one thing, I was not going to pick a side. In fact, I spent time with both divided groups, trying to cultivate fruitful relationships in hopes of harvesting reconciliation. You may feel like you are being pulled from both sides and your arms are about to be pulled out of their sockets, but keep in mind, unity cannot be forged with a line in the sand.
2. Disarm the Fighters
After Paul refuses to participate in the feudal conflict of the church by picking a side, he disarms them with the purpose of his ministry and the reason for their conversion (1 Cor. 1:17–31). Instead of correcting their view of baptism, and possibly adding to the division, he disarms them with the cross of Christ. It was God’s power that brought them salvation, so their identity is not in the man who baptized them, but in the Christ who saved them. Though various leaders in the church impacted them, Christ redeemed them all. Thus, Paul disarms their discord with commonality—all boasting belongs to Jesus (1 Cor. 1:31).
Baptists and committees are like apps on an iPhone—there’s a committee for that. This was certainly true of the first church I pastored. Each chair held a spot on the council, and some people held multiple chairs. As a result, the perception of power grew for those who had multiple votes, and the desire for control was a close a partner. Power breeds power. So what was meant to help the ministries of the church had now become a destructive battleground. After a conversation with a friend, I had decided to try and disarm the situation—find the commonality. Each committee served a purpose for different ministries in the church; so instead of committees leading ministries, we converted them to teams. The result of this conversion was that the church council dissolved and along with it, the grab for power. Though the discord was not totally resolved, this change affected unity that did not exist beforehand. The church finally began to focus on ministry.
3. Fight for What Matters
Paul had to remind the Corinthian church that there is truly only one thing worth fighting over—Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). While the wisdom of this world views the gospel as foolishness, Paul, in fear and trepidation, proclaimed the truth and by it demonstrated the Spirit’s power. Though there should not exist a line in the sand within the church, there is a conflict between the church and the world. The leaders of the world were incapable of recognizing who Jesus was, and therefore saw him suited for death. Though no eye could see and no ear could hear, Paul was going to fight for the gospel truth that Jesus Christ is the Lord of glory. While this divides the church from the world, it unifies the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, Christians seem to be better known for their internal spats than their Great Commission efforts. If it is in the church building, or a part of the worship service, there is a good chance that someone fought for it or over it. Carpets, pews vs. chairs, projectors vs. hymnals, and all these conflicts have been arenas for unfruitful battles that have brought division into the church rather than unity. It is easy to get caught up in arguments that are based on personal preferences—the Burger King “have it your way” mentality—but it is essential that leaders within the church not succumb to such dissenting skirmishes. We are all passionate people; the key is harnessing the differing passions to a point of commonality—the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church is diverse, but it is the gospel that unites. Fight for what matters and refuse to entertain the fights that do not.
4. Always Maintain a Proper Perspective
The Corinthian church had endured a schism that needed to be addressed. For the dispute to be over an image that unifies revealed that there was something greatly amiss within this newly founded church. Paul pulled the curtains back to reveal that the matter was not who baptized whom, but rather, the matter was a spiritual conflict. Though the world cannot discern spiritual matters, Paul states that those who have freely received the Spirit of God are now capable of evaluating anything and everything (1 Cor. 2:15). This nugget of wisdom was reserved for those who are among the mature (1 Cor. 2:6), however the recipients of the letter do not appear to be among the fold of spiritual people; they were infantile believers (1 Cor. 3:1–4). Their dispute revealed their spiritual state of mind and the spiritual nature of their conflict. It was necessary for Paul to give the Corinthian church a proper perspective regarding the spiritual state of those who have responded to the gospel—they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God (1 Cor. 3:23).
The conflicts over carpet, paint, or style of worship, all have a common denominator—they are spiritual matters. While the dissention over the selection of paint or chair versus pew may appear to be pettier and far from spiritual, it echoes the conflict Paul had to address within the infant Corinthian church. It is a matter of spiritual identity. When conflicts arise within a church over such matters, it demonstrates that the church does not recognize its spiritual identity. They are still pining for authority and ultimately autonomy from God. Leaders within the church need to help direct the attention of those in conflict to hold a proper perspective of their place within the body—we are one in Christ, who is one with God. Spiritual struggles are found within all of us, but so is the Holy Spirit of God, who unites all within the body of Christ. A proper perspective can help those who are in conflict and you, who are leading the congregation through the conflict. Focus on the spiritual matter no matter how petty its appearance may be.
Conflicts will always surface within the church. We all have opinions, preferences, and convictions that we would like others to latch on to, and as a result, tumult within the body can arise. How you respond to these matters can either help build momentum for the church and bolster it, or else further the divide and promote the hurt. Let me encourage you not to give up hope or lose sight of the wonderful calling God has placed upon you, but instead have the resolve to build and foster unity within the body by promoting Christ and his gospel.
Joshua Crutchfield is Pastor of First Baptist Church Trenton, Texas. He is a two-time graduate of Criswell College and a Ph.D. student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter.