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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dealing with Bullies in the Body of Christ

A young organic church planter asked me how I deal with people who complain about my words and at the same time, manage to tactfully address sensitive issues in the church. Here is my response...

Hey Bro.

We live in a day where we publish thoughts instantly and permanently to thousands of people in little sound bites of 140 characters or less. And we do this several times in a single day! The potential for sin is enormous. The book of James talked of controlling the tongue, but today it is the thumb that gets us in trouble!

Actually, I have always tried to walk the fine line of attacking the system that subjugates, not the people caught in it. I have unfortunately said some stupid things with twitter that I wish I could get back. As of yet, I haven't violated my own belief, but have said things that are not really going to be helpful but merely inflammatory...those are the tweets I regret. I have also lived to see people cold toward me and I'm pretty sure it was something I said. This closes off a potential area of influence and relationship in the future. That is the cost of saying inflammatory things that are not truly helpful.

The truth is Christianity is a sub-culture that is accustomed to and values harsh statements but also is easily offended. Finding the balance is more art than science. Those who are bold in their course statements are heralded as heroes who stand up for what they believe without compromise.

At the same time, churches are full of people with the spiritual gift of offense. These people live out their religion as though it is their calling from God to police others and let them know how wrong they are, and in so doing are even more obnoxious than the people they criticize (sorry if I just offended you...not!). It is this reason more than all others that I am glad I no longer preach a sermon every week in church. I DO NOT miss that! I actually do hope I didn't offend my dear friends at the church I used to pastor...I wasn't thinking of you. Those who claim to follow the silent Lamb of God should be the slowest to offense, but are often the quickest to find it.

The church is a strange sub-culture that must be wildly confusing to those who are not within...I'm confused by it and I am a part of the church (though many would disagree with that last thought). Perhaps the worst part of this sub-culture is the idea that we do everything we can to avoid all offense because "that's what Jesus would do"...Oh Skubala (that's the ancient Greek word for Sh#@)! Jesus was an outspoken, even sarcastic, leader who was not afraid to step on the toes of those who were keeping others in bondage to an old system. He spoke boldly, clearly, publicly, even mockingly, at the Pharisees for their self-righteous world view.

Paul did as well. To those who felt everyone needed circumcision to convert to Christ he said in Galatians 5:12: "Hey if you want to get real religious, why stop at the foreskin...cut the whole thing off and be even more spiritual!" (my own paraphrase...but the point is there, no pun intended). Have I offended some of you yet?

If we work so hard to honor the status quo to keep the boat steady we will never turn it around and we will be destined to drift off course in our "happy" little boat. The truth is these people will find reason to get upset no matter what we say or do not say. The result is that we are still offensive and no closer to being 'happy" but also way off course. So speak the truth in love...in fact, shout it from the roof tops. Here are some thoughts to help shout the right things and deal with those who strike back...

The first thing to consider is the Scriptures. If the folks we know in the system are bible believers and the Scriptures are clear you can speak with authority–not your authority but the Bible's authority. Let the Scriptures speak for themselves...they are far better at it than we are (Heb 4:12). If the Bible is silent than we should be silent. That is actually where many Christian leaders blow it. If the people are claiming biblical authority for something that is not in the Bible than speak boldly and unapologetically against that. That said, claiming something as "biblical" or "unbiblical"can sometimes be overdone. It is perhaps better to simply ask..."Where is that found in the Bible?" I find it better to question the weight people put on things that are not in the Bible than the actual practice itself. Often a practice was born in relevance for a moment but after many years it became sacred even though it is not in the Bible. Honor the past usefulness, but raise awareness of the fact that it no longer has as much relevance and is not a biblical command. Emphasize freedom in the truth. Jesus said the truth would set us free, not make us religious slaves.

Second is to always move to relationship when a conflict (or potential one) comes up. Don't camp in the conceptual areas you disagree on...move to relational touch points and make the relationship more important than the issue, after all, we're supposed to be the most loving relational people...right? Ha!

Third, don't defend yourself when you are being attacked...it only hurts your stance and empowers the one attacking you. Your friends may step up for you...that always feels good. If not, your Father in heaven will be your advocate...though perhaps not for a long time. That said, you can clarify things when someone rises up against you to make sure that they are understanding what you meant. But once that doesn't work (and often it doesn't) don't slide into self-defense. Ed Stetzer likens it to wrestling with a pig in the mud, you both get dirty but the pig likes it.

The remarkable thing is that in all my experience of receiving hate mail it is always addressed publicly without actually addressing me in private first. It is amazing how people can police others on their view of the Bible and totally disregard the Bible in doing so. The point is that they are not truly interested in what is true or spiritual...it is usually motivated by hurt, jealousy, envy or a divisive spirit in their own lives. Some people find empowerment by attacking others. You can't win that argument, so leave it be. There are far more important things to be about, get on with those things.

Hope that helps some.

Pressing on,

Neil

9 comments:

Johnny Littlefield said...

"...churches are full of people with the spiritual gift of offense..."

I burst out laughing when I read this!

Good article, with very good advice, especially on the ways of dealing with those who attack you!

aaron said...

Great input Neil. Thanks for sharing.

CMA Resources said...

Bro, We have watched you grow and live out this "art" in ways that inspire us to be more like our Jesus. Thanks for letting us peek into your heart, mind, and letter to another church planter!

Neil Cole said...

Thanks Mike (CMAResources)!

I would add that a sense of humor is important and rather than state that I tried to pepper the post with it by example. When bullies come at you, you can either cry or laugh, and you'll live longer if you laugh.

Pal said...

Not sure where this leaves me.

I have a serious problem with the use of legalism by "church leaders" to get money, ergo - the Tithe. It's dead, (Colossians 2:14), yet it is used to bully people through fear,guilt,and worry for money. TV "preachers" grabbing a figure out of the air as if it's from God, and then instructing people to be obedient by sending them money is another example. More bullying.

I've been taking them on in a rather BOLD fashion for I think they are nothing short of a brood of vipers. It's sickening. No matter how you say it, lovingly or boldly, they on keep on doing it. They need to be locked up - seriously.

I'm now find myself almost on a crusade. The whole system of institutional Christianity seems built on a form of domination, control, and a BULLY PULPIT.

Pal said...

Not sure where this leaves me.

I have a serious problem with the use of legalism by "church leaders" to get money, ergo - the Tithe. It's dead, (Colossians 2:14), yet it is used to bully people through fear, guilt, and worry for money. TV "preachers" grabbing a figure out of the air as if it's from God, and then instructing people to be obedient by sending them money is another example. More bullying.

I've been taking them on in a rather BOLD fashion for I think they are nothing short of a brood of vipers. It's sickening. No matter how you say it, lovingly or boldly, they on keep on doing it. They need to be locked up - seriously.

I'm now find myself almost on a crusade. The whole system of institutional Christianity seems built on a form of domination, control, and a BULLY PULPIT.

Victory is the Lords said...

"spiritual gift of offense" from the beatitoutofyous.

anewcreation said...

I have to agree with "Pal". Some things have to be said about the institutional system that has people living in fear and domination, and the problem is that if we say them lovingly we lose the intent and the ability to make people think through our words.

I think in the end it all comes down to whether we honestly think that the message we are about to give has been put in our heart as a result of our relationship with Jesus Christ or is it more a case of airing our own frustrations to make us feel better?

I have recently got into a whole load of trouble for writing on my blog a post about the reasons why I have quit my church. In my heart, I felt I wrote it in an honest, passionate, and loving manner, but clearly I went too far and hurt people. The truth is when I wrote it I can honestly say my intention was not to hurt but to be loving towards others by speaking the truth, warts and all. It is that fine line between being brutally honest with a son or a daughter who is about to make a very costly mistake, or thinking that by not speaking up and therefore going along with their behaviour, you will actually be perceived as more loving than if you were honest to them. I will choose speaking up every time. Some things are just too important and the effectiveness of what you put across may be completely depleted by trying to be "loving" in the process.

Mercedes said...

Sorry, it's me again. I forgot to say that as a result of the reaction of some members of my church to my post, I took it off my blog, but on reading your post about bullies, I felt tremendous encouragement to stick to my guns and actually maintain what I continue to believe even today. Perhaps my delivery was not the most appropriate, but I still stand by what I said and I still feel the urgency to share it.

If anyone wants to read that post, it is now back on my blog.

Thank you for allowing me to comment on your site.

Mercedes