by Al Maxey

Issue #253 ------- June 9, 2006
In times of anarchy one may seem
a despot in order to be a savior.

Mirabeau (1749-1791)

Facing a Family Feud
Counsel for a Church in Crisis

Henry Kissinger (b. 1923), a former Secretary of State, made the following astute observation in an interview on Oct. 13, 1974 with James Reston of the New York Times -- "If you act creatively, you should be able to use crises to move the world towards the structural solutions that are necessary. In fact, very often the crises themselves are a symptom of the need for a structural rearrangement." Kissinger, I believe, has a valid point, one the church would do well to carefully consider.

Crises, more often than not, are simply symptomatic of deeper, far more persistent, dysfunctions. A crisis rarely appears out of nowhere, but is quite often the ultimate, inevitable result of inattention and ineptitude. Most crises that arise among groups of individuals, whether secular or spiritual, could, in most cases, have been avoided had the organizational dynamics of the group been more consistent and the leadership more competent. Failures in either of these areas will, in time, lead to a dissatisfied, disillusioned, disinterested, disheartened and even disgusted membership, which can only result in a state of crisis. When this point occurs, some within the group will either rise to the occasion and provide the necessary, long overdue leadership, or the group will simply self-destruct. Sometimes the problem is the people, and they need to be called to changed hearts and renewed focus upon their very purpose for being. At other times, the problem may be more organizational or structural, thus calling for a careful evaluation of the entity itself to determine what "structural rearrangement" may be required. It takes both wisdom and courage to carry out either of these actions, or some combination of the two.

On Tuesday, May 23, I presented to you, the readers of these weekly Reflections, a congregation of the Churches of Christ that was in a state of crisis. Although I did not identify the location, to shield this group from further stress, nevertheless one of the elders of this congregation had approached me seeking counsel and comfort, and had kindly requested an analysis of their situation in a future Reflections, which I will be providing in this current issue. I informed this brother, and fellow elder, that I would be tapping into the collective wisdom of my many readers, which, in fact, I did in the following solicitous email [which I would strongly encourage each one of you to read once again, as a fresh appreciation for the crisis these fellow disciples of Christ face will make the following analysis more understandable]:

True to my expectations, you responded to my request overwhelmingly! I have literally printed out over 300 pages, single-spaced, of emails from all over the world; emails in which you expressed your love and concern for these brethren, pledged your prayers, and offered your advice. Some of you even telephoned me to offer your expressions of support for this body of struggling disciples, and to share possible plans of action. I sincerely thank you, and I know the brethren in the congregation experiencing this crisis appreciate your concern as well. I have shared this impressive response with the elder who contacted me.

Is a Bishop the Answer?

Without any doubt whatsoever, the following comment from the elder at this troubled congregation created the greatest furor from my Reflections readers, some of whom were quite upset over it -- "Al, this seems like heresy to me, having grown up in the Restoration Movement, but I really do think the time has come for us in Churches of Christ to organize ourselves somehow. I know the congregation where I worship needs a bishop. ... A relative, who is an occasional church-goer, and who has a Church of Christ background, wondered WHY Churches of Christ seem so willing to do this to each other. 'It's easy,' I told him. 'We don't have a bishop!' My co-worker is Catholic, and she says that when a priest comes to their parish and doesn't work out, the bishop will take care of the people of the parish. If we had a bishop, like they do, he could come into our congregation, listen to all the points of view, determine who's right and who's wrong (without bias), and we could then go back to where we were before this all started. ... I can certainly understand now why other religious traditions have gone to the practice of a bishop."

After I sent my special request to the readers, a request in which the above statement appeared, this elder wrote me again. He began that rather lengthy email by saying, "Al, Sometime I will get out to the Southwest; I will show up at your door and I will give you a great big hug. Thank you! Also, at the risk of sounding like an NFL umpire, I wish to say: 'Upon further review ...' I wrote what I wrote out of a deep frustration. Reading it again in your request to the readers, it sounds like I am advocating a little too strongly for a bishop. If anyone asks you, that is not my intent at all." I was certainly encouraged to hear this, and I know you all must be as well. No, a bishop system is not the answer, and it doesn't take a great deal of thought to perceive why.

I received a host of powerful responses to this idea that we need to appoint a bishop over congregations, but none so forceful as the following from a brother in Georgia. "Al, I want to respond to your request of May 23, 2006 with the maximum power that I believe is possible toward the elder who thinks we need a bishop to run our congregations: Hell No!! I do not mean any disgrace to the Lord's church, but sometimes we must say something to wake up those who are asleep!" Well, I have to admit, that certainly woke me up!! Another reader in Georgia, who has preached for many decades, wrote, "That is a road straight to Roman Catholicism." Yet another reader observed, "Let's suppose the Bishop couldn't solve the problem. Would a Cardinal be a better solution? Maybe a Pope?" A reader in Texas wisely pointed out that "a bishop would solve nothing. He'd be just one more person to be upset with and to try and replace!" A brother living in Oklahoma astutely stated, "I look at the problems of the Roman Catholic Church, and I do not see the Bishops and Cardinals doing a better job!"

Most readers wisely pointed out that if a group of discontented disciples refused to submit to the authority of a group of elders who lived among them, what would motivate them to submit to the authority of a man who did not?! A brother in Alabama stated it this way: "I fail to comprehend how a group would be happy with the decision of one person (the Bishop), if they could not accept the decision of a plurality." A preacher in Texas wrote, "If people are not going to listen to the counsel of elders whom they themselves appointed, I can't see that they would listen to a man they hardly know, and who is less familiar with the local problem than either the local members or local elders. The monarchial bishopric was one of the first steps resulting in the development of the Roman Catholic Church. Those who fail to study and learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

No, a bishop system is not the answer to the problem. Adding additional levels of bureaucracy rarely solves anything, and it would certainly solve nothing on the local, congregational level in the Lord's church. The answer to the dilemma faced by this congregation, at least in part, is not additional oversight from outside the fold, but more effective oversight from within the fold (more about this later). The reality is: elders are bishops, if one will carefully examine the two terms employed in the New Covenant writings, and I find no guidance from above to suggest the wisdom of elevating one man above the others. Indeed, there is ample biblical evidence to suggest the foolishness of such an arrangement of "one man rule" [as per the example of Diotrephes -- Issue #183]. I would refer the readers to Reflections #186 -- The Eldership of the Church: Descriptive Words - Definitive Work.

Several readers were quite upset with this elder for suggesting such a system, taking him to task in no uncertain terms. A reader in Nebraska wrote, "The very suggestion of installing diocesan bishops suggests two things: (1) a woeful ignorance of the NT and church history, and (2) an elder who wants to turn his responsibility over to somebody else. How sad." A brother in Michigan stated, "I sympathize with the elder's situation, but adding another layer of bureaucracy seems more an effort to pass responsibility on to someone else." An elder in New Mexico observed, "It seems to me our brother is looking for a scape goat in suggesting a Bishop could better handle personnel matters in the church." A reader in Alabama wrote, "I thought I had heard just about every weird religious suggestion made, but I guess I was wrong! This man needs to resign as an elder at once. I hate to say it, but it looks like he is headed to the Catholic side of the house. This man is an elder and doesn't even know that he is a bishop? No wonder they have problems. He doesn't even know what the word means!" A reader in Colorado said, "Doesn't the man know that when he signed on as an elder that they were going to have to make some hard decisions? It sounds like they've refused to cope with a situation until it's escalated out of all control. The job of elders isn't for wimps, and wanting a bishop to make their decisions for them (and to take the blame) is purely a cop-out." A preacher in New Mexico observed, "It seems that in his weariness he is longing for someone to whom he can unload this problem. This may be easy in the short run, but it does not fix the problem." As a reader in Texas stated, "it would only delegate the responsibility for decision making to someone further removed from the situation."

Liberals, Pulpiteers & Chairmen

A minister in Tennessee had a somewhat different take on this. He used this incident as a soapbox for an attack upon the "liberals" in the church, and specifically upon me. His view is that these elders are simply reaping what they have sown, since, in his view, "they have been fed Max Lucado, Chuck Swindoll, and Charles Stanley for so long that they cannot tell clover from sneeze weed. ... His Ashdodic language betrays him (i.e., 'Church of Christ background'). ... I believe that you, and all those who think as you do, have contributed to the very kinds of situations the congregation you referenced in your special request is facing and that many congregations will continue to face over the next few years. It is nothing other than reaping what has been sown and the fulfillment of the truth: 'Your sins will find you out.'" This brother said he has "seen it coming for the last 25 years." Yes, this reader declares boldly, it is the "progressives" who have led the church down the road to its own destruction, just as the conservatives predicted. A reader in Alabama concurs -- "This is the result of years of fellowshipping denominations so as to develop 'unity-in-diversity.' Mr. elder man you are reaping what you guys have been sowing for the past 50 years." On the flip side, a reader with a "progressive" church in Texas asked, "Was this a 'legalistic' church? Sounds like it."

Frankly, whether it was one or the other is largely irrelevant (and, to be honest, I don't have that information regarding this group); divisions happen in both camps, and factions have arisen from each. Neither has cornered the market on healthy congregations. Having said that, however, I am convicted that far more squabbles and schisms within the church are fostered and facilitated by those of an ultra-conservative mindset than those in possession of a more progressive mindset. It is simply a fact that legalistic patternism is, by its very nature, divisive, whereas those who are grace-centered are, by their very nature, more accepting of differences. This is certainly not to suggest the latter group is entirely devoid of problems, but the simple reality is that more contentions arise from the "conservative" side of the house than the "liberal." For an analysis of this, see Reflections #8 --- From Whence Cometh Contentions? I would also recommend that the reader carefully consider Reflections #8a --- A Reasoned Response to a Reader's Rebuttal of "From Whence Cometh Contentions?"

An elder in the beautiful state of Missouri (to which Shelly and I are headed in a few days) had yet another concern with regard to something this brother in the troubled congregation had stated in his email to me (and which I shared with the readers in my Special Request). He wrote, "I am bothered by the title of chairman of the elders. Sounds a lot like a precursor to Bishop. Perhaps I am spoiled by the fine men with whom I serve as an elder. There is no 'chief' or 'chairman' or even 'president' of the elders. We are all equally accountable to one another and to the flock. The congregation knows this and does not treat any one of us as 'more important' than the others." The statement that bothered this brother in Missouri is the following: "I am an elder (serving currently as chairman of the elders) at the ----- Church of Christ here in ------." I think I can set this brother's mind at ease on this matter, as we also, here in the congregation where I serve as one of the elders, have a monthly "chairman." This in no way is an elevation of one man over the others. It is not a position of authority. I will be serving next month (July) as the chairman, for example. All this means is that for the month of July I am responsible for calling any meetings that may need to be held, for chairing those meetings (such as the monthly Elders/Deacons meeting), and for offering the "Shepherd's Prayer" at the end of each Sunday morning assembly during my month (a prayer where one of the shepherd's prays for specific prayer requests from the members). I have no doubt that this is all the above referenced brother had in mind when he stated he was "chairman of the elders." It is simply a sharing, on a rotating basis, of facilitating duties.

Blame it on the Preacher

Several readers felt the problem in this congregation was most likely the preacher. After all, in most cases he is the newcomer to the community; the "hired help" ... and thus the one most "expendable." If things go wrong, the common cry from the pew is, "Fire the preacher!" This is one reason why tenure for ministers in Churches of Christ is about three years per location. At the first sign of trouble, they are out the door ... voluntarily, or otherwise! In the congregation under review, the preacher, who had been there for nine years, was indeed the focus of the turmoil. Whether or not this man was actually the cause of it is open to debate! "Some of the members of our congregation had issues with our minister, who has been serving here for nine years. These were ethical issues (allegations of theft -- in that he used and purchased things some people believed he was not entitled to -- occasional inaccessibility to members, and so forth)." I have no idea as to the specifics of any of these allegations, but I think it is significant that on at least two occasions the elders investigated these charges and did not feel there was anything sufficient to warrant any disciplinary action, much less his dismissal. Nevertheless, some were convinced the preacher had to go, and they were not going to be deterred in their resolve.

Some readers seemed to agree. A minister in Tennessee, for example, wrote, "The preacher of the congregation of which you spoke should have left or been dismissed long ago. But he obviously enjoyed his role as 'pastor' of the church and was not about to leave, in spite of the fact that he was at least one of the major causes of the church's problems." Talk about rushing recklessly to judgment! The information available to us is simply insufficient to make such a harsh declaration. Indeed, the elders who investigated the matter found no reason to make such a judgment, thus where does this reader get his information. This is the same reader, by the way, who earlier stated the church in question was simply reaping what it sowed, and who felt Al Maxey, and all those who think like him, are responsible for the many woes besetting the church today. Such ludicrous assertions deserve no further comment. They collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. Such men have an "axe to grind" and don't mind using another's misery to further their own agenda.

Two Deacons - A Former Elder's Wife

There are two basic ways of looking at the actions of these deacons. In the best possible light -- if indeed the preacher was a thief, and the elders seemed unwilling to take action -- then these men may well have been simply seeking to be good stewards of the Lord's resources and to bring an offender to repentance and accountability. This, of course, is a possibility. My own gut feeling, however, based on the information provided to me (some of which I made public, some of which I did not), is that this scenario is highly unlikely. Far more likely, in my view (and it should be considered as only my opinion), is that the attitudes and actions of these two deacons were abominable. It appears to me that, for whatever reasons, they had determined this preacher needed to go, and they were not above digging up any dirt they could find, whether actual or assumed, to achieve their goal. Frankly, if my assessment is correct, I think these men needed to be disciplined by the elders, and, if they failed to repent, they needed to be removed as deacons ... and most likely even removed from the congregation. The "imprecatory letter" from the wife of a former elder, which resulted in one of the elders resigning, was also very likely reprehensible. Unless there was some noble and just cause for such, of which I am completely unaware, her actions and attitudes were sinful and shameful. She too should have been dealt with firmly. With this analysis a great many readers fully agreed.

A brother with a doctorate in education from the great state of Florida said, "The two 'bird dogging' deacons should have been dealt with ... and the former elder's wife needed to remain 'former'." Another reader stated, "The moment that the deacons began their 'survey' of the congregation they should have been stopped." One brother wrote, "When this whole mess first started, the eldership should have called in those making the accusations and made them furnish the proof or shut their faces!" A reader in New Mexico felt "the deacons need some correction." This comes from Oklahoma -- "The problem seems to be divisive members (especially the deacons who surveyed the congregation looking to find fault with the preacher). ... Perhaps the elders could have initiated the early stages of discipline." An elder from Missouri felt that "these two men had set out in what feels like a rebellious attitude toward the elders, and appointed themselves as the investigators of the matter (instigators?) in spite of the fact that the elders had already considered the issues and felt no action was needed." This was perceived to be an "end run" ... a going behind the backs of the elders. A reader in Arkansas correctly observed, "It appears to me that the elders had already investigated the situation and were satisfied that the accusations against the preacher were not justified. Going behind the backs of the elders only served to sow discord among the brethren."

A minister in Oklahoma wrote, "As for the former elder's wife writing a letter, she was in no position to do so, and should have been reprimanded for that action. The elders must look again at the participants in this crisis and evaluate the individual actions of each --- i.e., the two deacons going around talking about the preacher, and the former elder's wife and her role in the matter. Perhaps an admonition to repent or face public discipline for their part in sowing seeds of discord would be in order." A reader in Alabama says, "If these deacons are causing divisions, they should be confronted; if they persist, they should be withdrawn from and marked. Strong leadership is needed in cases like this!" A reader in Arkansas wrote, "It appears to me that those deacons were way out of line. It appears they are in a power struggle in this church, with the deacons trying to elder. The elders should have confronted these men at the onset of this." An elder in Arizona stated, "The deacons should have been counseled, reprimanded and taught their duties. ... They got out of their sphere, the members gossiped and muttered, then chose sides, and the local body was split." A reader in North Carolina declared, "Those two deacons and this woman should be disciplined by the church! Their actions led to the splitting of this congregation. There is no excuse for their behavior!" A beloved brother, and fellow minister here in New Mexico, perhaps stated it best, and most succinctly -- "A bishop? No! Christ-like deacons? Yes!"

Are the Elders to Blame?

To be perfectly honest, I believe there is sufficient blame to go around here. This whole tragedy at this congregation was the result of a combination of significant failings. At least, that is my impression based upon the limited information at my disposal. My judgment might be modified somewhat if I was called in to do an "on site" evaluation, but my suspicion is that it would not be significantly altered by additional details. The basic failings here were two-fold, in my estimation: (1) lack of love, and (2) lack of leadership. In the hearts of too many key players in the congregation, personal desires and personality conflicts had taken precedence over a fervent love of the brethren and for the cause of Christ Jesus. Too many had become self-centered, rather than grace-centered. As these skirmishes took place in the local family, and grew, the leaders did not appear to act with sufficient speed or force to bring a resolution. Indeed, they appear to have played somewhat into the hands of some of the key instigators. This led to a crisis of significant scope, with the resultant response from the leaders being too little too late. Crisis Management is rarely the most advisable leadership strategy!

A reader in Texas correctly observed, "Much of the problem could have been avoided if the brethren there really loved one another." A preacher in Florida suggested that this congregation needed "a very big dose of Brotherly Love." A reader in Missouri lamented, "It is so sad when we stop loving one another, for it leads to such tragedies. If brethren do not have love for each other, and a strong desire to work at building their relationships, there will never be peace. When each person is 'out for self,' we all lose!" A reader in Montana said, "I see a group that has lost sight of their first love, of brotherly love, and of their purpose!" A brother in Arkansas wrote, "I don't believe this is an organizational structure problem; it is more of a heart problem. Satan stirred the pot and got a foothold that destroyed a congregation where all parties involved lacked the wisdom or insight to foresee the devastating power of Satan to destroy." Another reader expressed much the same sentiment -- "The problem is not in our organizational structure, but in the hearts of those who would create divisions among us!" A fellow elder here in New Mexico, and a close personal friend, said, "Isn't it sad that we are willing to hurt so easily the very people that we have been admonished through the inspired Word to love."

A minister in New Mexico correctly notes, "Hearts need to change in this church. Kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and forbearance seem to have been sadly lacking. Prayers on behalf of the elders and the minister would have accomplished so much more good than splitting a church over a group's preferences. Clandestine meetings and bogus surveys are typical of our nation's self-centered infatuation with 'individual rights,' but are totally at odds with Christ's instructions to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated and to sacrifice our own desires for the well-being of others and to the glory of God." A ministry leader in California observed, "Until the culture of divisiveness in this congregation is replaced with a spirit of cooperation, humility, and love, this situation will never be resolved, I'm sorry to say." Thus, I repeat, the first basic failing in this congregation was lack of love.

Second, there was a lack of leadership, and, yes, this charge must be laid at the feet of the elders. This is not to suggest these were bad men, or that they didn't have genuine concern for the flock. I think they simply failed in their duty to be watchmen, and as a result wolves were allowed to feed upon the flock. Some leaders simply don't care for confrontation, and will avoid it at all costs ... sadly, such avoidance often proves very costly. When complaints were brought to the elders, the elders should have confronted those bringing the complaints, insisting they practice Matthew 18. This seemingly was not done. When the two deacons began their campaign, they should have been shut down immediately. This also was not done. This failure to exercise strong oversight proved to be fatal.

There are some major red flags raised in the above statement that depict poor leadership. The deacons were doing some major "fact-finding" (dare we say "dirt digging") via an extensive survey of the members of the congregation ... and the elders were unaware. An eldership a bit more involved with their flock, and a bit more involved with their deacons, might have picked up on this much sooner. Also, one of the elders was apparently going along with these deacons ... without the knowledge of the other elders. Thus, even the elders were not communicating as they should. A divided eldership is doomed! An eldership that does not communicate openly and often with one another is dysfunctional. These elders had investigated the charges and found they did not warrant any action against the preacher. That should have settled the matter. When the two deacons continued their pursuit of the matter, they should have been disciplined immediately. The elders, in my opinion, failed to stand boldly at the side of the preacher who had served them for nine years, and as a result he was forced to resign. If they had in fact found no fault in him, they should have supported him. No minister can long survive such attacks if the elders are not right there by his side. When elders back away from a preacher, he's doomed.

A minister in California wrote, "When the leadership learns of church members sowing seeds of discord -- such as taking a poll to document the minister's 'deficiencies' so they can dump him -- it's time to start leading!" The leaders must stand together against such attempts at discord. Instead, one of the elders was apparently secretly accompanying these two deacons. He then later resigned. Yes, there were problems in the eldership that prevented them from effectively addressing the "brush fires" that soon grew to a raging "forest fire." Even worse, now that the forest is blazing, most of the elders want to resign!! A brother in Texas wrote, "I can sympathize with the elders who want to resign, but elders are shepherds of God's sheep, and when the wolf is at the door, as in that congregation, it is time to stand up and fight rather than to abandon the sheep and flee." A dear preacher friend in Mississippi had this to say to the one elder who is willing to stay and fight on -- "I believe my hurting brother needs someone to stand beside him, instead of three men who are ready to give up!" A brother in North Carolina lamented, "Why is it like this in just about every congregation?! Somebody gets upset and then elders start resigning!! I have never understood it!" A minister/elder in New Jersey stated the same concern: "I am mystified by the concept of 'elders resigning.' Administrators may resign, committee members or chairpersons may resign ... elders cannot resign! Our problem comes from viewing the elder as an 'office holder,' rather that a Spirit-led man with a God-given responsibility. God expects His elders to lead, feed, shepherd, mentor, guide. It is not an option. Elders have responsibilities imposed by God. 'I'm sorry, God; I just don't want the responsibility anymore!' I don't think so!" Resigning is not the answer. The answer is: start leading!!

What Can Be Done Now?

My heart truly goes out to this elder who shared the struggle he and his congregation are currently experiencing. I sincerely hope and pray he does not take anything I have said as a personal attack. I spoke very frankly and firmly, just as I would hope he would to me if the circumstances were reversed ... and they could very well be one day. We are all flawed disciples, and the one speaking words of correction today may well be in need of correction tomorrow (Gal. 6:1). This brother sought an objective, outside evaluation, and I have tried as best I could to provide it. It would be unfair and unprofitable to present him with anything less. I only pray that he understands that every word spoken in this article is sent forth in love for him. He is my brother. I don't want to add to his hurt, but neither do I want to gloss over the things that might help him heal.

As noted, I believe there were some significant failings on the part of several within the congregation that led to this unfortunate time of crisis. It is easy to point fingers and assign blame. Any fool is capable of that. The far more difficult task is to provide guidance for the future. "Where do we go from here?" is undoubtedly on the hearts and minds of many in that congregation ... on both sides of the struggle. May I humbly and respectfully and lovingly suggest the following:

  1. Prayer and fasting! I would suggest the elders (and I pray there still is a plurality of elders there ... now is not the time for you to resign; your flock needs you!) call the congregation together and pray. Pray fervently. Pray for the minister and his family. Pray for those who took issue with him. Pray for those who took issue with those who took issue. Pray for a renewed sense of purpose as a congregation; for greater love for one another; for healing. Pray for forgiveness. Elders, take the lead in this; set the example. They need to see you on your knees! There is no place for pride. "A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51:17). Humble yourselves before the Lord.

  2. Elders, don't rush into hiring a new preacher. YOU should assume the duties of the preaching and teaching for a time; let the congregation see you standing before them; let them hear from your lips the necessary teachings of our Lord that will help facilitate their healing. Let your messages be filled with love and compassion and mercy, and let them see these qualities alive in your daily lives. Be honest with them about the failings of the past, but do not dwell upon them. Learn from them, and move on. Replace the negative with the positive. Hold before them the mission and purpose of the church, and call them to be a people of renewed purpose. Brethren, now more than ever, they need to SEE you leading. If sheep don't have confidence in their shepherds, there is trouble in the flock! That confidence needs to be restored before introducing a new preacher into the equation.

  3. Elders, you must present a united front to the congregation. Speak your minds openly and honestly to one another in your meetings, but when you are in the presence of the flock you must be united. When members see a divided eldership, they will play one man against another. Factionists will go after the weakest link in the chain, and it can prove fatal. That one elder siding with the deacons, while the others were unaware of his actions, was a horrendous mistake ... and it was likely played for all it was worth. Let the congregation SEE you visibly displaying your love and affection for one another. Let them see the elders hugging one another. It may seem like a rather small thing, but it sends a powerful message!

  4. Elders, if those two deacons who conducted the survey are still serving as deacons, they need to be confronted by you in a private meeting. First of all, confess to them your own lack of leadership in this matter. Let them see you humbling yourselves. And then call them to repentance. Inform them that the failings of the past will NOT be repeated. Inform them that they are to repent before the congregation for their actions. If they will not, then remove them as deacons immediately, and inform them that if any further divisive actions should be displayed in the congregation, they will be disfellowshipped. Call in the former elder's wife and call her to repentance also. There is no need to publicize these meetings (unless the two deacons are removed); word will get around. The flock needs to be aware that such actions will no longer be tolerated, and should they occur in the future they will be addressed quickly and decisively. The flock needs to see your resolve that this tragedy will NOT be repeated, and they need to know that you are taking action in the matter.

  5. Elders, be prepared to lose some members. You already have, unfortunately. However, when you take action to correct the problems of the past, you will likely lose more. Do not allow this to deter you. Sometimes a body becomes so ill that the cure is almost as painful as the disease. Be courageous; persevere! It won't be easy, and it is going to be excruciating in some ways ... but you just may save the patient! It's worth the effort.

  6. Elders, don't hesitate to seek outside assistance in bringing about the healing of your flock. There is no shame in seeking help. I pray this article with provide some insight, but it is not even remotely the final word. You may need to bring in some brethren who are very experienced in helping congregations heal from such traumas as you have experienced. Such resources are available. You might want to check with Dr. Charles Siebert at Abilene Christian University. He has been a blessing to many in similar situations. ACU's Center for Conflict Resolution is a valuable resource. So also is the Institute for Dispute Resolution which is located at Pepperdine in Malibu, CA. Most of our Christian universities have some kind of conflict resolution team in place that will come and assist struggling congregations. Don't hesitate to avail yourselves of these brethren.

The road that lies before this congregation will be a difficult one, but it is not an impossible one. When we cease being self-centered, and become increasingly Christ-centered, there is hope for the future! I can't help but think of the people of Israel during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their relationships with one another were in shambles, they were abandoning their wives and seeking mates from the pagan nations. It was a mess. These two godly leaders called the people to repentance, and some extremely painful reforms were enacted. Many probably felt the situation was utterly hopeless, however I love the advice of Shecaniah, son of Jehiel. He said, "We have been unfaithful to our God ... but in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel" (Ezra 10:2). To my dear brethren in this troubled congregation, and in other congregations throughout the brotherhood, I offer these same words of comfort and encouragement. The Lord is able to deliver you ... trust in Him to do so!


Al, in your Reflections you have hit the nail on the head. I submit the following not out of a desire to justify myself (although I know some will see it that way), but because I want to round out the information provided to you and to your readers. Instead, I am humbled. I have been shaken to my soul. If there is a charge of "ineffective eldering," I must plead guilty.

Allow me to discuss some things, point by point:

One --- I was never truly advocating for a bishop. Your readers that said I desired short-term help, out of frustration, were correct. And yes, I know that in the New Testament an elder is a bishop is a pastor is a shepherd.

Two --- Why would people pay attention to an outside individual rather than one who was already within the congregation? Impartiality. The elders were seen by some in the congregation as being aligned with the minister. Someone from outside the congregation would have a different perspective -- such as your readers have given me.

Three --- I could make a case for a paid full-time minister very simply. We want two things from such a man: (1) Time, and (2) Expertise. Allow me to explain. If someone is having surgery at 6 a.m., and if prayer should be offered prior, someone will have to be there at 5:30 a.m. The surgery may not be over until 10 a.m. or later. I have to be at work at 7 a.m. If it's important to the church -- and to the Kingdom -- to be represented at the time of surgery, then let's pay for someone's time to make sure a representative of the congregation is available to be there. As to expertise -- if the kerygma (the proclamation of the gospel) is important, then let us find someone with the expertise and the ability to feed the flock. Not every congregation has an elder with that background.

Four --- Yes, I am the "chairman of the elders," which means I set an agenda for meetings (matters we must deal with) and serve as a point of contact. I am a servant to the other elders; in no way am I first among equals.

Five --- It wasn't so much that our preaching minister "enjoyed his role as 'pastor' of the church" as it was that he enjoyed the favor of a majority of the congregation and of the eldership.

Six --- The deacons' effort started out as analyzed -- they just wanted to be "good stewards of the Lord's resources." The problem was that they went beyond that. I do believe that their desire to be low-key was based on a desire not to build up dissension -- at first. When they became frustrated with the decision of the elders, however, it all blew up.

Seven --- The former elder's wife was likewise frustrated. While she did not agree with the current elders' support of the preacher, she has since apologized to me for the harsh tone of her words.

Eight --- Has there been a lack of leadership within the congregation? I and my brother elders stand accused; as for myself, I must plead guilty. If I may address an issue, however --- When do you know when to do battle? That sounds like a subject for another Reflections article. I never felt that that time had come; I never believed that people would actually behave the way they did. I was shocked. And I do not feel, as some implied, that I was out of touch with the congregation.

Reading my words to the deacons ["If you want to go ahead and push for the minister's firing..."], yes, I understand now that I was giving them passive permission to do just that. I should not have said that. I wish someone had been there to set me (and them) straight at that point in time. An update --- Both of the deacons who were involved in the fact-finding effort have left the church. One of them cited in a letter (this has been a very "literary" dispute) the lack of leadership in the congregation and was quite upset that the elders did not defend him when he was only trying to do what was "right and godly." That was hard to take.

Our elders shall call for repentance; prayer and fasting shall be a part of it. One of my brother elders has said we need to be "read up and prayed up." We shall need to stand clean before the Lord, confess our inattentiveness before the body of Christ, and bring the flock back together with each other and with the Father. Again, Al, I have been humbled, and I thank you for it. Also, as a postscript: Dean Martin used to end his television show with a request -- "Keep those cards and letters coming in." We're not asking for cards and letters, but I have been comforted by the knowledge that brothers and sisters throughout the Kingdom are praying for us. My additional prayer is that we are worthy. Thank you, Al. I am bouyed, yet humbled; I am encouraged, yet chastened. Life in the Kingdom is exciting.

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Readers' Reflections

From a New Reader in Nepal:

I am the Evangelist for the Kamal Pokhari Church of Christ in Kathmandu, Nepal. I am just reading your Reflections on various subjects. I am still doing so. Many of the things you are trying to explain are very good. So far I am alright. Thank you for providing good material for me since I am in Nepal and I have to study a lot. It is appreciated. There are many things going on within the Lord's Church. I am much aware of it. We need to stand for the Lord. May God bless you.

From a New Reader in North Carolina:

Al, I have been forwarded several of your Reflections and appreciate your in-depth analyses and thought-provoking insights. I would appreciate being added to your email list to receive Reflections. Thank you!

From a Doctor in Alabama:

Amen, Amen, AMEN! Very well said, Al. You hit the nail on the head with your latest article (but that's hardly a surprise, since you hit the nail on the head in just about every article you write). I may have overlooked a passage or two, but I can't recall a single time where Jesus ever had a harsh or unkind word to say to any of the "sinners" He met. He welcomed them with open arms, socialized with them, treated them with compassion and respect, and even forgave them of their sins before they ever repented or asked for forgiveness. On the other hand, Jesus continually lashed out at the self-righteous religious legalists of His day, condemning them for their hypocrisy and their lack of love and mercy. So, if we're supposed to be followers of Christ, whose example ought we to imitate? Who are the more faithful Christians: those who, like Jesus, befriend sinners and rebuke religious bigots, or those who, like the Pharisees, rebuke sinners and befriend only those who "measure up" to their own standards of righteousness and orthodoxy? As far as I'm concerned, those who call themselves "Christians" ought to act like Christ, not like His chief opponents, the Pharisees.

From a Minister in California:

Wow! Another home run, Al. Provocative, stimulating, insightful -- and more. In fact, while reading this issue, God placed in my mind the thought for a great sermon series called "SHOCKING!" -- to be based on the many shocking things Jesus did and said to rattle the cages of those stodgy ol' conformists and reach out to the hungry hearts of the people they turned out and shut down. Keep it coming, brother! God is using you in a very powerful way to reach a whole lot of people who are big-time hungry for a relationship with Jesus to replace their worn out, conformist-based religion. Isn't Jesus wonderful!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, "Free in Christ!" How wonderful that is. I am so sorry for all the many self-shackled souls who cannot or will not enjoy it. Reminds me of something Bro. R. N. Hogan said in the long ago: "Brethren, no need to build a cage around the Truth to protect it. Turn it loose! Believe me, it can take care of itself." I love the Woman at the Well. What powerful sermons ring out from her exchange with the Master.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Thanks so very much for your article "The Woman at the Well," describing Jesus' willingness to dialogue with others. I have been engaged in a spirited "dialogue" (if you could call it that ... it is more like a "Donkey Barbecue") with a brother from the great state of Tennessee who teaches that everyone who is not in his brand of the Church of Christ is lost. He talks about the "pattern of salvation," the "pattern of worship," etc. I asked him for this pattern, but never received it.

From a Minister in Georgia:

Brother Al, Great article as usual. I forwarded your last Reflections ["The Woman at the Well"] to many of my friends. For many years I have taught and preached that in John 4 Jesus is not saying that we are to worship God in "Spirit plus truth" (i.e., formulaic patternism). What He is saying is that since God is Spirit, to truly worship Him you must worship Him spiritually. It is not worship at Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem, but rather from the well-springs of the heart, which are overflowing because the Living Water [Jesus] dwells within us.

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