One of the inherent difficulties of a plural leadership is the inevitability of disagreements within the group. Secondary doctrines, cultural practices, ministry methods and personal preferences are just a few of the areas in which disagreements can arise. In this matter, churches with a single authority figure might appear to have the advantage – speed in decision making. It does not take much effort to achieve unanimity in a group of one!
Of course the Lord had deeper things in view when He led the apostles to “appoint elders [plural] in every church “[singular]” (Titus 1:5), as illustrated by a verse in Proverbs: “In the multitude of counselors, there is safety” (Prov. 11:14 KJV). Rich spiritual blessings come to those who will work at loving one another in spite of differences. This sets a valuable example before the flock as to what spiritual maturity is all about; it protects the church from the strong willed person; and it brings joy to the Lord when brethren demonstrate a practical ability to “dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).
Which brings us back to the question of what to do when elders in the same local church disagree on a matter. Incidentally, this implies a further question of how to handle disagreement among elders of different churches, a subject beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that the traditional strong emphasis on the autonomy of the local church provides some safeguards here.
Importance of the Subject
This subject of dealing with conflict is of critical importance for church leaders. One of the fundamental building blocks of the church is unity, and it is unrealistic to expect a spirit of unity and harmony in a fellowship where leaders cannot get along.
Does this imply that good elders will hold the same views in every detail of life? Of course not. One of the beauties of the Christian church is the gathering together of people from diverse back- grounds with all sorts of perspectives on most everything in life, and a great deal of Scripture. Despite differences, the teaching is clear: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Obviously this cannot mean that we love only those who agree with us, but that we love all those who belong to Christ.
Normally there will be agreement in the fundamental doctrines of the faith, but this still leaves a tremendous range of lesser matters on which good men can and often do differ. How then can wise elders protect themselves from the disruption occasional disagreements can bring?
Taking Practical Steps
Knowing problems will come, it is wise to make provision in advance. Two areas where such forethought can help have to do with:
1) Agreements Made Before Problems Arise
2) Actions to Take Once a Disagreement is Encountered
Before Problems Arise
Surprisingly, most contentions can be disarmed simply by forging agreements beforehand on how to deal with them. Although I do not often do so, I feel constrained at this point to urge assembly elders in the strongest possible terms: talk about this subject together before problems are encountered. It will make the process so much easier than waiting until the troubles come. This principle is true both in the human family and in the church.
Elders need to discuss in advance the general course of action they will follow when differences of opinion arise. Such discussion may take the form of a step by step protocol for handling difficulties or may be simply an agreement that “God will bring us to oneness through prayer and waiting patiently on Him.” Spoken (verbal) affirmations that each brother is a respected member of the leadership team and that the Spirit of God is sovereign in whom He will use to guide the group into truth, are especially helpful.
Some of the ideas outlined below may provide material for further discussion.
Once Problems Have Been Encountered
Sadly, most cases will fall under this heading, simply because of the natural tendency to put off discussions about un- pleasant subjects until “later,” hoping that “later” never comes. But, sooner or later, in the course of assembly work, elders will come to an impasse in the decision- making process. Surely, it is affirmed by some well meaning brother, Scripture and common sense demand that it must be “this way” and yet one or two other brothers insist that it can only be “a different way.” How shall the deadlock be re- solved?
Some guidelines that may help
– Every elder should sub- scribe to the truth, and earnestly desire, that only the mind of Christ can ultimately be followed. Each elder must be convinced that the mind of Christ is truth, and have a genuine desire to discover that mind and submit to it, thus admitting that such exercise will eclipse any desire to have one’s own way.
– Each must humbly acknowledge that his own perspective might be flawed. This is especially true when there are cherished natural ties at stake such as dealings with family members or long-held traditions. Each must love the unity of the team and the blessing of the church more than get- ting his own way.
– There should be a prior agreement that waiting on the Lord in prayer will solve the dilemma for submissive hearts. No thought of a majority vote with victory for the majority can be entertained. And don’t be afraid to wait. Waiting on the Lord is not procrastination. It is not time wasted. Time and again, elders have discovered by hindsight that God used a brother’s reluctance to proceed with a course of action, not to kill the idea, but to adjust the timing for the maximum blessing.
– Respect for each individual brother is crucial and will hold the strong leader back from forcing his own way on the rest of the group to the exclusion of other points of view. Note that true respect is both earned and freely given, and extends to such seemingly small details as the tone of voice and terms used in speaking to one another, and waiting for others to finish speaking while listening sincerely to what they are saying.
– Ask if the issue at hand is the real problem or only a symptom of deeper issues. Sometimes it requires a time of prayer and honest soul searching to determine if the sticking point is but the tip of an iceberg of doctrinal or relational problems that keeps crying out to be cleared up once and for all.
– If an immediate decision is required, search for areas of compromise; agree to test a course of action on a trial basis; and be willing to admit to a mistake if the passing of time shows the decision to be faulty.
There are many examples in the Bible of disagreement among leaders. One of the best known is the “sharp contention” between Paul and Barnabas as to whether John Mark should be allowed to accompany them on the second missionary journey (Acts 15). Students of scripture have taken both sides and one cannot be dogmatic either way. But it is noteworthy that there is no mention in the record of prayer and waiting on the Lord for guidance.
Too often, the flesh argues either for a quick decision or indefinite waiting (procrastination). Good leaders who will not allow the work of the Lord to stagnate or rush into possible shipwreck, are a priceless gift to the church.
However, such skill does not just happen, but comes from spending time together in the Word, prayer, patience, good communication, and a firm resolve to get the situation cleared up, thus allowing the work to move forward.
This whole business is never easy work, but it is good work and usually fruitful. And it is all the better if elders have held quiet discussions in advance so that they are prepared when ministry encounters stormy seas.