The Scrapping Shepherd
I have yet to meet any pastor who enjoys conflict. There is not one brother I know, who wakes up in the morning, and after praying, reading the word and heading into the office, thinks, “today will be a good day to pick a fight.” If there were such a man, his character and qualifications for pastoral ministry should be examined. Now, saying this, it is evident that being a faithful pastor indeed calls for times of conflict. The very definition of conflict is when there is a serious disagreement or argument. Now taking this into the theological sphere, it is clear, that when serious doctrinal issues are on the table – conflict will arise. Let us look at just a few examples for a moment when we see conflict in the Scriptures.
For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you (1 Corinthians 11:18-19 NASB).
When the church was coming together, at the Lord’s table, Paul makes a very interesting statement, “I hear that divisions exist among you.” The word for division is σχίσμα, this noun is being used in the accusative neuter, reading σχίσματα. Paul understands there are opposing factions within the church – and follows by declaring there must be, so that those who are approved, may become evident.
Now we understand in the early church, there were Judiazers, who would come behind the Apostle’s preaching and teaching and attempt to undermine the Gospel (Read Galatians). There were also (before the title was actually coined) gnostics. Individuals moving away from sound teaching. So when we look at these verses in 1 Corinthians 11 – we could apply that there was apostasy, or even stronger, heresy rising up, and this is why there were sects, within the church.
Now, this reality should not surprise anyone. Jesus was direct in his preaching. He tells his followers to “beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). It was Christ who said, “Many false prophets will arise and mislead many” (Matthew 24:11) and it was the Apostle Peter who said, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
Understanding this, Paul well versed in the teachings of Christ, knew that when such conflicts arise, [matters of sound doctrine], it will reveal those who are genuine and those who are not. God is working and revealing those who are His and those who are not.
Now sometimes conflict requires strong words. Again, one should not simply be desiring to be polemic in their approach – but when two sides are strongly opposed, the very words that are spoken show clearly there is a disagreement. In the ancient world, both Jesus and the Pharisees used rhetorical styles of communication that may seem polemic in our current day and age. In Matthew 23, we read of the eight woes Jesus Gives the Pharisees. Woe or οὐαί as it appears in Greek is an interjection of grief. Jesus is publicly condemning these religious leaders. In verses 13, 14 and 15 – there is a rebuke, and Jesus calls these leaders Hypcorytes. They are actors, they profess one thing, but live another or their inner beliefs are not what appears on the surface. In verse 16, Blind Guides, 17, fools and blind men. More rebukes and repeating of previous observations into verse 27 where Jesus himself calls these men, “whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
Verse 33, Jesus calls his opponents serpents, brood of vipers. Christ himself, speaks to indicate that these leaders are wicked and doomed for damnation. Remember vipers have venom, and venom kills. So this strong rhetoric Jesus uses, and it is important to mention again also returned by the Jewish leaders shows that Jesus' teaching and their teaching are at opposite ends. The strong rhetoric shows the audience there is a clear opposition (conflict). Lastly, on this subject, there are times when not only will strong rhetoric be used – so will names. Paul himself calls out Hymenaeus and Alexander who were handed over to Satan so they would be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:19). Paul speaks of Demas, who was in love with the word and deserted him (2 Timothy 4:10).
Now it is important to understand one key thing. Faithful leaders (pastors/elders) are not the ones causing division in Scripture, it is the false teachers. So, when a serious matter arises, pastors should not be afraid to weigh in. We must remember, pastors have a calling, not just to feed the sheep, but to ensure the food they are eating, is healthy. They are to do their best to present themselves to God, as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). He is to be humble (Titus 1:7), gentle and not quick-tempered (1 Tim 3:3). He is to be a man who is not violent (Titus 1:7, 1 Timothy 3:3). More so, he is to be self-controlled, upright (Titus 1:8, 1 Timothy 3:2) and most of all pastors are to shepherd the flock of God among them. They are to exercise oversight as one who joyfully does it, not under compulsion and according to the will of God with eagerness (1 Peter 5:2). And in all of this, they are to hold firmly to the word as taught, and rebuke those who do not hold to sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).
This is done through the charge Paul gives pastors. Specifically in,
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NASB).
The very next portion of Paul's letter pushes this truth even further.
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5 NASB)
So, should a pastor get involved in "conflict?" Yes. In an age that has seen an increase of false teaching, and men propagating a gospel that centres around secular humanism, and health, wealth prosperity, it is imperative there are faithful voices shouting the truth. But there is a caution.
Any pastor who chooses silence, and cowardly behaviour so as to not feel the heat Christians are expected to face, they are not shepherding well. Often, being gentle, kind, meek, fighting for peace and unity and never getting into a scrap, can reveal character flaws. As much as this is true, a pastor who only focuses on the next fight, being a mouthpiece for righteousness and seeing conflict in every situation also shows character flaws. The pastor must be ready, to be the peaceful loving, kind man who tends to the flock, and at the same time prepared to fight off the wolves and lions with his bare hands if need be. Finding the balance is paramount, and is difficult. This is why having a plurality of elders within a church is essential. To ensure all aspects of ministry are performed well, specifically if the pastor's ministry is not just local but public (online with blogs, podcasts etc.).
The church today is under great threat. Not from the external, but the internal. If men are not willing to get the skin off their noses scratched, eventually the outside influences will be the majority within the church. Just look around, it is getting more evident. So let's be pastors who serve well, love hard and if need be, get into the odd theological scrap when times call for it.
May (let) the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Colossians 3:16-17 NASB)
In His Grace,