Are you looking for a perfect congregation? Take a number and stand in line. The perfect congregation is elusive because they are composed of imperfect people.
Yes, problems happen. If anything should tip our hand to this fact it ought to be the apostolic letters to the churches found in the New Testament. Even though the Spirit of God dwelt in the primitive church, the New Testament reveals those congregations were still imperfect.
Problems emerged, emerge, and will continue to emerge within the church, and within a congregation. Paul said that the heartache of “factions” can provide a lens to recognize who are “genuine” in the church (1 Cor 11:19 ESV).
We have been given biblical teaching as to how to respond to disruptions caused by Christian misconduct. The answers are found in the apostolic word. Consider three examples.
1. The Thessalonians
Certain members of the congregation in Thessalonica would not work in order to be self-sufficient (2 Thess 3:11-12), but instead, burdened the church as they received dietary support. Such was described as living in “idleness.”
Such were described as “busybodies,” which is a play on words contrasting the appropriate Christian ethic of being “busy at work.”
The point being that some members of the Lord’s church in Thessalonica refrained from being productive in the workforce, and had become guilty of lifestyles which were unproductive, intrusive, and disruptive to the lives about them.
The apostle Paul sets forth an apostolic injunction to prohibit those who willfully reject the divine ideal to “earn their own living” and received benevolent sustenance from the church: “if one is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10).
The church suffered at the hands of their disruptive behavior (i.e. “busybodies”). Since they were subsidized by the church, Paul aptly responds: “stop subsidizing their sinful behavior!”
Too many times, matters which affect the congregation (gossip, opinions, hypocrisy, etc.) are allowed to thrive due to lack of solidarity to follow God’s teaching. Here Paul makes it clear that the congregation must make a stand together placing sanctions on those Christians who live contrary to the divine teaching on working to supply your own needs (2 Thess 3:6ff).
Only with a unified front, will there be sufficient godly pressure to make the defectors return to the “ranks.” The congregation is to apply the pressure of a well-intended, caring family towards “work” so that they may not be an unnecessary burden on others (3:8).
2. Paul and Barnabas
Sometimes problems develop within very successful ministry teams, particularly in matters of expediency.
In Acts 13:1-4, the setting for Paul’s ministry to evangelize the world is narrated. In fact, the Holy Spirit is quoted as saying, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2).
This Divine call to action belongs to Barnabas as much as it does Paul. Still, throughout the reports in Acts of the various evangelistic labors it appears that Paul (Saul) begins to gain special consideration (Acts 13-14).
An interesting footnote is placed at Barnabas and Paul’s transition from the Cyprus Island to the southern Asia Minor Roman province of Pamphylia (Acts 13:13). Luke writes that “John” (= John-Mark 15:37) was with them in their evangelistic campaign functioning as an “assistant” (Acts 13:5); however, for reasons unknown he left Barnabas and Paul and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
After some time had elapsed, Barnabas and Paul were anxious to return to the “mission field” to see the well being of the congregations which they planted in Asia Minor. At this point, Barnabas and Paul entered a “sharp disagreement” over the inclusion of John-Mark (14:36-41).
John-Mark who had served as an “assistant” (Grk. huperetes), a term which suggests the responsibility to care, guard, and to manage the resources of another, had “defected” (= ESV “had withdrawn”) from the evangelistic team. Why, is anyone else’s guess.
While Mark broke his commitment to the evangelistic team, Barnabas wanted to give John-Mark a second chance; but Paul felt him undependable – an evaluation he publically reverses over a decade later (2 Tim 4:11). Mark is enshrined in Scripture as one whom Paul came to think of as helpful, beneficial, useful (Grk. euchrēstos, 2 Tim 2:21; Philm 11).
Still, Luke does not append any evaluation upon who made the right choice, for Barnabas and Paul part ways here never to be found together again on the pages of Scripture; and yet, never disparaged for their differences on this issue. Possibly, they were both correct, and it is one of those cases where there are two right choices for the same problem (Prov 26:4-5). Wisdom is always a contextualized answer-solution to a contextualized problem.
It is unfortunate that such a successful evangelistic team should part ways, but the most significant point is that neither party refrained from evangelism. Paul continues to fulfill his ministry, as Barnabas continues the “encouragement” he is known for (Acts 4:36; 9:27).
Here is a powerful lesson, especially for advocates of non-denominational Christianity. At various times, brethren due to opinions – even strong opinions – must part ways for the common good of sharing the gospel with the world:
There is enough room for different expedient methodologies (provided they are biblical) to thrive side by side without any sense of competition of faithfulness to intrude our works.
Paul continues his work with the prophet Silas, and along the way picks up Luke and Timothy. Barnabas takes with him John-Mark to the island of Cyprus. One dynamic team turns into two evangelistic teams with capable leaders.
Sometimes we need to step back and realize, like Abraham, that we are brethren, and as such, we should not quarrel with each other over expedients (Gen 13:8; Rom 14:13). Disagreements can be worked through if the parties involved reflect heavenly dispositions to make peace (Jas 3:13-18). Faithful children of God must strive to “agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2-3). Might one of those agreements be in the matter of ministry methods which are different but biblical?
3. Diotrephes and Gaius (3 John)
Sometimes a church setting can be thrown off its balance by a strong vocal minority. They typically are aggressive, carnally minded, and self-absorbed. Unfortunately, good meaning brethren can give such ones an audience -and the podium- which encourages their behavior.
Such was the case with a man by the name of Diotrephes. In brief, the apostle John sent a few preachers to the church acquainted with this man in order to be welcomed and financially supported in their evangelistic and missionary work.
Read more about Diotrephes in “Studies in 3 John: The Fellowship of the Truth”
However, pumped with his own arrogance, he rejected the apostolic request, suppressed the request, attacked those like Gaius who provided for men like these, and imposed his own will upon them by ill-treating the preachers and casts their supports “out of the church” (9-10). In practice, he was a “missions killer.”
Such “church gangsters,” the apostle John says, must have their nefarious operations exposed (“I will bring up what he is doing”). They operate in the brotherhood “alley ways” where their true face is revealed. They are punitive. For not only do they not support a “worthy” work, they will subvert them at all costs.
The church must stand up against those who are intoxicated with pride, those who manipulate behind the “church” scenes, those who “always need a villain” in order to promote their agenda and get their way.
Problems come, but the church has, can, does, and will overcome them if we are faithful to God and gracious to each other. Some church problems are ethical or doctrinal; consequently, as in the Thessalonian situation, the only solution is to reinforce God’s plan for Christian conduct and teaching.
Other times, church problems emerge when leaders disagree over matters of opinion. Sometimes, we must realize that not every method is the only way to carry out a biblical command or expectation. Some methods and decisions can co-exist side by side. We must learn to be flexible and gracious in such scenarios.
Finally, some problems are instigated by a divisive minority who implement their plan in shadows rather than in clear view of all. They are coercive and manipulative. They seek and exercise power rather than submission to God. In such cases, exposure of such conduct is warranted in order to begin the process to restore peace in the church.
These situations do not exhaust every problematic scenario, but hopefully they provide guideposts which will be helpful. May the church learn to acknowledge and work through our problems in a peaceful and God-fearing way.
- James H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914-1929), MM 654-55.