This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Before going on to discuss how to resolve the three different types of conflicts, it is important to address a presupposition that has come to dominate the evangelical Church. On those rare occasions when the leadership in a local church is willing to take up consideration of a conflict, it is almost always the case that the leaders refuse to think or behave judicially. The office of elder is, by definition, a judicial office. One of the primary tasks of the elder is to exercise judicial thought and render judicial decisions. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul rebukes the elders of the church for not exercising judicial authority. Paul says that the elders are “babes, rather than spiritual men” and that they have become “arrogant” because of their cowardly refusal to exercise judicial behavior. In Chapter 5: 12 he specifically instructs the elders that it is their sworn duty to judge those who are within the church.
In the evangelical Church in this country, the office of elder has devolved to one of counselor and sharer of “no-fault” emotional experiences. “No-fault” emotional experiences never recognize that one person is a victim and another person is a sinner. The evangelical elder of today simply tells both parties to a conflict that he “feels their pain” and seeks to arrive at a “mutually derived, emotionally satisfying position”. To even suggest that it is the duty of an elder to act judicially is almost always met with a powerful negative emotional response. (Strangely, it never occurs to these men that their rejection of the duty of judicial thinking is the by-product of a judicial thought; namely, the thought that it is wrong for them to judge others!) To even suggest that in every conflict there is a strong possibility of moral culpability and sinful behavior on the part of the disputants is deemed as being beneath the dignity of the office of elder.
There are many reasons for the current state that we are in. Cowardice has to be at the top of the list. Since so many churches are in over their financial heads it is necessary to make sure that the members are kept happy. To become known as a church that exercises discipline is a sure predicate for loss of membership. Most elders are terrified of the act of confrontation that is required in the exercise judicial authority. Exercising judicial authority over people who are sinning is never a pleasant activity. The fact that most men are elected or promoted to the position of elder in the church more on the basis of their likability and ability to relate emotionally to sinners is certainly not helpful in bringing about the practice of judicial thinking. Furthermore, the dominant evangelical presupposition that it is never right to judge anything or anyone makes it almost impossible for elders to act like biblically qualified elders should.
This degenerate state of the office of elder was dramatically illustrated in a recent meeting between my church elders and the elders of another church in our community over an attempt to resolve a conflict involving people from both of our churches. My pastor clearly spelled out, with six different biblical arguments, what he believed to be God’s revealed will on the subject. The elders from the other church sat quietly while he did so. When he was finished they proceeded to spend the next hour and a half telling him that his arguments were worthless because he had not shared his emotions about the issue with them. No question was asked with respect to any of the biblical arguments that had been presented. No correction of any alleged theological errors in his argument was given. Instead, he was deluged with a torrent of emotional outbursts. Tears were shed and many heads were hanging in expressions of profound grief and sorrow, but nothing judicial took place. If this were an isolated incident, it might not be worthy of considering. However, this is an example of standard operating procedure among the leaders of the Church today.
Emotions, and emotional responses, are a big part of conflicts. However, emotions are irrelevant in the resolution of a conflict. Of course, emotions need to be known and understood in order to fully comprehend a particular conflict. But the biblical mandate of judicial thinking necessarily requires the elders to suspend their own emotional involvement and ask the question, what does God’s revealed will on this issue declare? Emotional involvement on the part of the elder/judge only makes it much more difficult to see the revealed will of God and impartially render a judicial decision on the matter. Making the discussion of emotional responses to a conflict the exclusive activity of an investigation ensures that no judicial thought or action will ever take place.
Elders commit the logical fallacy of believing that because they do not render judicial decisions they have done no harm. In the example with the church just mentioned, one of the elders specifically asserted that rendering a judicial decision would do harm to the parties involved and that was why it should not be done. What those men failed to realize is that the decision to not make a decision is, in fact, a decision that might result in harm. When a conflict requires a judicial resolution and that resolution is not attained, both the victim and the sinner suffers. II Samuel contains a fascinating story about an abdication of judicial authority on the part of King David that resulted in tremendous harm being done to his family and the nation of Israel.