The Barnabas Ministry

When Confronting Doesn't Bring About Change, and Why Churches Can't Change
In another Barnabas Ministry article Confronting Those In Authority, I presented some steps for taking action when the conduct of those in authority is sinful, harmful and/or offensive.
The article doesn't address situations where confrontation doesn't bring about change, so that's the topic here.

Reviewing the Basics
The basic text on confronting sin and offenses in the church is found in Matthew 18:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17) ."

Clearly, the steps in confronting matters is first addressing the matter privately, then with one or two others to act as witnesses, and then bringing the matter to the church. If a person won't heed the church, they are to be regarded as a pagan or tax collector.

The final authority rests with the church. Not the leaders. Not the elders. The church, acting in unanimity, speaks the strongest voice concerning morality.

There are other passages that also apply. When somebody says or does something hurtful or sinful publicly, it is reasonable to confront it on the spot-- we see this both with Jesus confronting Peter in Matthew 16:23 and Paul confronting Peter in Galatians 2:11-14.  Also, Jesus and the apostles spoke freely about the well-known practices and teachings of others like the Pharisees and various false teachers who threatened the church (e.g. Matthew 23:1ff, 1 Corinthians 15:12). There is no evidence that this "Matthew 18 process" was followed in those cases. Because the problematic behavior or teachings are public, it is appropriate to address them publicly. This allows the church to be protected as promptly as possible.

There are two other difficult cases to address. The first is the case of the perpetrator-less issue-- cases where an entire church system or culture is sinful, unhealthy or warped. The second is the case where the confronting process does not lead to change. For example, what if the confrontation is rejected or the church is divided on the question at hand? What do you do?

Personal Experiences with Church Changes
I have had many experiences with churches and change. I realize these are somewhat anecdotal, but they illustrate the dynamics of change and are part of what I draw upon in the thoughts that follow.

  • The church I was baptized in was a "mainline" church of Christ in Tucson. They had hired a Crossroads-trained minister to spearhead its campus outreach at the University of Arizona. Yet within a few years, there was a formal and painful church split between the Crossroads-influenced group and the rest of the church.
  • I helped found the Denver Church of Christ. It was originally a planting of the Crossroads Church of Christ, but also had many refugees from other Crossroads-type ministries. Everybody was excited to be a part of a church that reflected our values without having to fight in the church over them.
  • Two years after it began, the Denver Church of Christ was "reconstructed" by Kip McKean and the Boston Church of Christ. Though much more could be said about this, what made this reconstruction possible was that both the leaders and a great majority of the members of the church wanted to see it take place. However, there were some members that didn't want to see it take place, and most of them left.
  • Many years later, when I was confronting unhealthy things in the International Churches of Christ, I was ready to persuade leaders that certain practices were hurtful, damaging, counter-productive or the like. But I was surprised at how many members did not want change-- many who had expressed dissatisfaction with these things for years but yet didn't want to change them when they had the chance.
  • I was a member of a budding megachurch and was elected as an elder. There was corruption and mistreatment at high levels of leadership prior to my election. Myself and the other newly elected group of elders tried to address the problems in as healthy a way as possible, but the efforts were doomed to failure. Most people in the congregation didn't know what was going on with the mistreatment of people and in fact had been misled about what was really going on with the church staff. When the truth became more well-known, most wanted to keep things the way they were anyway. They wanted to keep their leader and programs in place, regardless of what that person was doing to other members of the church.
All things are possible with God (Mt 19:26). Yet, there are all sorts of bad things in the world that are somehow part of God's plan for the world. I don't understand it. But we must take both of these things into account when confronting bad things in churches: Sure, God can change anything, but sometimes churches make the right choices and sometimes they don't.

Experience and scripture teach me the following things about changes and churches.

Unpleasant Truth #1: Churches Don't Like to Change
Churches don't like to change. This may sound cynical, but it is the truth. There are several reasons for this tendency for a church to remain the same.

To begin with, a church has a set of moral values, teachings and practices about God that define the church. If a group believes these things are right, then why would there ever be a need to change anything? Even if a particular situation is difficult, the spiritual traits of perseverance and faithfulness will reinforce the built-in tendency to stick with their defining elements and thus remain the same.

Those in authority in churches generally feel like they are doing the right things, doing the best they can, etc. And they generally know that they aren't perfect and not everybody will be happy with them regardless of what they do. So they tend to do what they think is right or best. In more troubling situations, those in authority work to maintain that authority and will act aggressively to protect it from any threats. These factors work towards the church remaining the same.

It is natural for people to defend their church and their leaders. They tend to be loyal to the organization and the leaders rather than the truth. A good example of this was seen in the Ted Haggard case, where parishioners defended Haggard without even finding out the truth first (see a discussion of this in the Barnabas Ministry article "Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse").

When churches change things, even minor things, those in authority usually hear far more complaints than praises. This is one of those "human nature" type of things, that people are more likely to complain about things they don't like than give kudos for things they do like. This dynamic provides yet another strong force for a church to remain the same.

Interestingly, scripture recognizes this strong desire to remain the same. In the parable of the wineskins, Jesus made a remark that is so short that it can easily be neglected. In fact, it is only contained in Luke's version of the saying.

He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.' " (Luke 5:36-39)

In context, Jesus is answering questions about his followers fasting. He answers the specific question with a broad statement that he wasn't trying to fix-up Judaism but rather he was starting something new. Thus, he wasn't trying to conform his followers to Jewish traditions, nor was he going to be patching up Judaism or pouring new life into it. That's the main point of these parables.

This remark about "the old is better" is intriguing. Jesus is telling us that with regard to spiritual things, people generally prefer the old and the familiar to the new and the unfamiliar-- notice how those in the parable made their choice about the old wine without even tasting the new wine! This dynamic certainly applied in his ministry and was a reason why some were reluctant to accept him and his message.

But this is also a timeless principle. When it comes to churches (and many other things as well), people tend to like what they have and they don't like change. There may be things they don't like about what they have-- but just try changing any of them!

So in confronting hurtful or abusive practices, or corrupt or unhealthy systems, there are two important dynamics to consider. First, there is the harmful thing itself, whatever it is. But then there is the fact that people are used to what they have and are uncomfortable with change. The reality is even if the first can be addressed successfully, the second dynamic will often prove an insurmountable obstacle.

Unpleasant Truth #2: Christians Can Be Nasty When Change Comes into View
Bringing up serious problems or matters of offense and advocating necessary change can be an exciting or threatening time in the history of a church. Many group dynamics come into play, and the responses can be very strong.

Overall changes in a church happen when the leaders and the people are fairly unanimous about it and the impending course of action is clear. And in confronting something unhealthy or hurtful, the message could be valued and changes could take place. This is the way things are supposed to work. When this happens, great.

But in confronting something, a hornet's nest of opposition could be stirred up. Not only will the words of counsel or confrontation be rejected-- it is quite likely the one doing the confronting will be attacked and purged from the system because the system itself cannot bear the change, or even the thought of the change. It threatens the identity of the church and the members too much.

Here are some of the things I've personally experienced or personally witnessed concerning people in these type of situations:
    • be told they "didn't bring things up the right way," and then how they brought up the initial issue becomes the new issue
    • be fired or pressured to resign
    • have a slanderous or harmful report spread about them to other potential or actual employers
    • be marginalized-- removed from whatever positions of influence they might have
    • be attacked and discredited
      • be mischaracterized as bitter, unspiritual, "out to get" somebody or looking for power
      • have their spirituality, love for God or others questioned
      • be subtly put-down, such as being described as "struggling"
      • have sins confessed in confidence leaked out
      • have every failing or inadequacy magnified
      • all good things done discounted or credited to others
      • be spoken against from the pulpit as a "wolf" or evil, bad person
      • have close friends or family turned against them
      • be accused of being unforgiving, impatient or the like
      • be spoken of in a condescending way, portrayed as someone who isn't competent to speak about the things in question
      • be mischaracterized as attacking the church or the work of God instead of the sin or unhealthy things being addressed
    • events could be "spun" to make it look like whatever wrongdoing is going on really isn't happening or isn't that big of a deal
    • history can be re-written to omit people out of favor with the leaders
    • have their children ostracized or shunned by any "friends" who are children of those who defend the system
    • what were thought to be good friendships can evaporate in an instant
The common trait of all of these items is that they have nothing to do with the matters being brought up. For example, if a church leader has been dishonest about something, what does it matter if the person confronting him went on a certain mission trip or not? Or what does it matter if a church leader was honest about something else? What does it matter if a person accused of mistreating one person was kind to a hundred other people? Doesn't that person that was mistreated matter?

These irrelevant things are red herrings designed to divert attention from the matter at hand in hopes that people can be manipulated and the offenders can escape the confrontation. Dont' be fooled by it. (I'm convinced there are some people whose primary defense of their own wrongdoing all throughout life is to counter-attack anyone who confronts them.)

Nobody thinks this torrent of mistreatment can happen to them. After all, those who bring these things up love the church and the people involved, and they're trying to help. They really want things to be better. Everybody who is thinking about confronting an authority needs to think and pray about these things and be ready for what might be coming.

But if we take a step back from the nastiness, what does this tell us about what is going on? It seems that when the issues being confronted are closely tied to the identity of the church, confronting the problems associated with those things is nearly the same as confronting the very identity of the group. If we view the church as a wineskin that can only bear so much change without being destroyed, it provides further insight about why people respond so strongly at the prospect of change.

Unpleasant Truth #3: Outside Help Can Do More Harm than Good
It would be wonderful if appealing to unbiased, outside advisers would be helpful. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea. People look at this as a way to persuade something or someone to change, thinking "Maybe if they hear it from somebody else, they'll take it better." There are two problems here. Number one, churches don't like to change and it doesn't matter who brings it up.

Number two-- like the massless ropes, frictionless pulleys and lossless electrical lines I used in my engineering classes back in college, unbiased advisors don't exist.

In one situation in which I was a part, a prospective outside helper was rejected because bringing him in was perceived as undermining the existing leadership of the church. I suppose that leadership felt like it could be setting a bad precedent also. Once you open the door to outside influences in a dispute, where does that end?

In another situation, outside help was brought in by an eldership. It turns out the eldership itself was divided on a matter, and the consultant was soon put in the position of acting as an arbitrator between sides, taking responsibility for an unpleasant decision (no matter which side the outside consultant came down on, it would have been unpleasant to somebody). The leadership abdicated its role, t
he consultant took sides based upon her own values, and truth went out the window. The consultant expected to have the decisive say in the matter and even leaked confidential emails to subvert the elders when their choice differed from that of the consultant.

Consider another scenario: If pastor A does xyz (a wrong or hurtful thing) and gets confronted about it, and pastor B is brought in as an outside consultant but also does xyz, it is unlikely that pastor B will rebuke pastor A for doing xyz. Sadly, it is likely that pastor B will try to make xyz not look quite so bad. And now pastor A has pastor B talking about how good and righteous he is and how xyz isn't so bad, etc. We can see pastor A and pastor B protecting and defending each other instead of helping each other be more godly. In this case, bringing in a consultant actually mades things worse. And sadly, there are many similar scenarios.

It is extremely difficult for outside helpers even with the best of character, intentions and integrity to remain unbiased. It is very easy for them to end up with a "horse in the race," siding with the ones whom they like, those who are paying them or otherwise acting in their own best interests, not the best interests of the church.

And if an outside adviser really is trying to help, people on both sides of the issue will be seeking his favor and putting him in a position of arbitrator. The proverbs have an appropos warning:

Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own (Proverbs 26:17).

I'm not saying outside help can't be good or that getting a consultant couldn't help. The scriptures also say that the counsel from many advisors can help (Proverbs 11:14 et al). I'm just saying anybody looking to get a consultant involved in a church dispute needs to beware of these dynamics.

The role of a consultant should be to help the congregation and its leadership decide its affairs, not to impose a solution or take sides.
A consultant should help the church take steps towards a healthy solution-- confronting these matters on its own in open, honest, truth-guided discussions and allowing the more spiritual and mature members of the church to speak on behalf of truth. That is the spirit of Acts 6:1ff, when a dispute has the power to cause division in the church.

Most importantly, selecting an outside consultant does not alleviate the local church from its responsibility to resolve its dispute. And it does not guarantee that the problem will be resolved.

Unpleasant Truth #4: Unsuccessful Confrontation Ends in Departure
Christians have a moral obligation to address sin and problems when they see them (Luke 17:3, Matthew 18:15, 1 Corinthians 1:10-12), and also an obligation to defend the weak and speak for those who might have been silenced (e.g. Psalm 82:2).

Jesus praised some Christians for not tolerating wicked men (presumably in the church, ref. 1 Corinthians 5:10) and for confronting false apostles, and also chastised other Christians for tolerating false teachers in the church:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary (Revelation 2:2-3).

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling  (Revelation 2:20-21).

It is evident that the confrontations are necessary, and that some reasonable amount of time would be allowed for the offenders to repent or for needed changes to be put into place.
After patiently confronting a situation, praying for repentance, and waiting for that repentance, something must be done when repentance or change doesn't happen in a reasonable period of time.

There are few options at this point. Either the confronting ones leave and find another body of believers. Or they stay and persistently confront these things.

In staying, the result is a
divided church where this issue overshadows all other things and God himself. Further, they must realize that their continued participation in the church may add credibility to the thing they are fighting and actually increase the amount of hurt or other negative effects.

The pragmatic decision is to leave.

Is there some other option? No.

Does it have to go like this? Yes.

Does it stink? Yes.

Is there any way to look at this that can make things better? Maybe.

Hopeful Proposition #1: Are Church Splits OK?
Having been through a few church splits, I would generally say you don't ever want to have a church split. They can be hurtful and nasty.

But after seeing people leave bad church situations one by one and then be isolated, deeply discouraged and hopeless, I'm beginning to re-think my position on church splits. I am beginning to think that a church split is not as bad as I thought it was and that it is preferable to people leaving one by one. In fact, it can be a good thing.

What is better-- for parties in a church to remain "together" and beat each other up over an unresolved issue, for people to leave a church one by one and be scattered, or for a group to leave en masse and form a new congregation? The first option is unsustainable, the second isolates individuals, the last retains relational connections. A church arising out of a split will tend to be reactionary and there can be all sorts of bad feelings associated with it. At least they can address the reactionary aspect among themselves and work to bring healing in time. But people who leave as scattered as individuals aren't even in a congregation anymore. Everything they have invested relationally is gone. And in all of the discouragement and spiritual damage, there is no one to turn to for help or fellowship.

So maybe church splits aren't so bad after all. Certainly it would be best if a church authority would repent or change when confronted with things. It would be best if it did not marginalize those who have been hurt by its bad conduct or attack those who confront the issue. But if repentance isn't forthcoming, is it so bad if the people aware of the problem gather a critical mass of values and people and form a new congregation? Isn't this the "new wineskin" that is needed?

It has been said that church splits are divisive, but isn't the divisiveness with those who take a dispute about truth and turn it into a matter of favoritism and control? Isn't it divisive to run people out of a congregation? Aren't those who split forced to leave when those in authority or a controlling element of the church reject the issue in question?

There isn't a Protestant group today that doesn't exist because somebody left some other group because they were deeply troubled with some aspect of doctrine or practice. So it would be utterly hypocritical for any Protestant church to complain about any group leaving it for the same reasons.

Hopeful Proposition #2: Both Sides in a Split Can Prosper
Maybe Jesus' teaching about the wineskin can help here. Matthew's version of the story has something that neither Luke nor Mark have:

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved (Matthew 9:16-17)."

This version talks about pouring new wine into new wineskins instead of old wineskins, thus "preserving both."  What "both" does he have in mind? From the context of the story, there seems to be an interest in preserving the old wineskin and the new wine, since these were ruined by pouring new wine into the old wineskin.

Though Judaism had acquired traditions that corrupted it, and even in its most pure sense it couldn't bring salvation, nevertheless it did quite a bit of good. It oriented people towards God, it proclaimed God's words and values to the people, and the Law itself testified to Christ. Just because it wasn't adequate for salvation doesn't mean it was needing to be destroyed at that moment. Jesus said he came to fulfill it, not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). There were many things that needed to still play out-- Israel's rejection of the Christ, the resurrection, the proclamation of the gospel. Judaism couldn't be abolished just yet, it still had a role to play. Perhaps this explains why he was concerned about "both" being preserved.

Is it possible that, just because a church fails to make a right choice or has a ministry paradigm that has problems, it might be good enough for somebody else, for now? Or it still might have a role to play? I think "yes." We live in an imperfect world, and imperfect things can still be of use.

Those leaving an "old church" often have a strong desire to see it just crumble tp vindicate their stand. But as Jesus wouldn't let the Sons of Thunder destroy a impenitent village (Luke 9:54-55), God has an awful lot of patience towards people when it comes to responding correctly to him. That's probably a good thing, isn't it? Shouldn't those leaving a church have a similar spirit?

Though a church or church authority rejects a message of truth, there are probably still some good things going on there. God will be the one to decide when it crumbles, God will decide when the "lampstand" is removed from its place:

A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed--without remedy (Proverbs 29:1).

Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:5)

In the meantime, God may do some good things there, he may let others bring these same matters to the forefront in due time, and he may continue to show patience in the hopes of seeing repentance (Romans 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9).  After all, at one time those leaving now were a part of a group doing bad stuff. Is it so odd that others may have that same chance to appeal for changes at some later point in time? Or does patience go out the window after the first try?

I wish there was no such a need to confront things in churches. Maybe churches that are built on things that are imperfect (like denominational distinctives, personalities and programs) are the problem since those things are bound to have limitations and cause offense. But the reality is that churches are what they are. Sometimes they do things that hurt people and they need to be confronted. Sometimes those confrontations are heeded, but more often it seems they aren't. Sometimes the needed change is too much for a church to bear. Sometimes people have to leave a congregation because change doesn't happen.

It seems to me that the lesson of the wineskins allows for, indeed suggests, a church split when there are irreconcilable differences. In this way, both sides can follow what they believe is right. This allows God to work in both situations as needed instead of people continuing to fight about these things.

And if churches and Christians can accept that church splits can be a good thing, maybe they can be considered a serious option earlier in the conflict process before so much damage is done to so many people.

For more on this topic, see the Barnabas Ministry article "Scriptural Reasons for Leaving a Church."

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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