Division and dissension in the body of Christ is a serious matter that the Apostle Paul takes up in many of his epistles. As important as it is to all the body, as demonstrated, for example, in the letters to the Corinthians, the Roman church, and the Galatians, in some instances he writes specifically to church leaders, such as Titus and Timothy, with direction about safeguarding believers in their assemblies from those who aim to destroy from the outside, who may even invade as wolves in sheep’s clothing, but who are actively opposing the will of God.
It is even necessary to rebuke congregations who are counted among the righteous but who are behaving foolishly, and yet, without question, Paul’s shepherd’s heart pours out compassion and affection for all the churches. It’s not surprising therefore that today, many Christian content sites address church leaders on similar matters—counseling them on what to do when people don’t like them and what to do when they don’t like people. For the most part, they’ve all been helpful, biblical and balanced.
I think it’s important for pastors and elders to have these conversations, balanced with the exhortation that Paul gives to the strong in Romans: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10). If a person is truly a brother, a particular tone is necessary if the matter is not essential, and if it is possible that sin is involved, the matter must be investigated so that false accusations are not made.
I wonder, though, if those who publish these lateral communications—from leader to leader—realize their very public counsel is being overheard by the rest of us who read these blogs, and if they are aware how often the tone could be perceived as less than longsuffering or gracious, much less compassionate or affectionate. One I remember reading early on (2016) was by David Murray at HeadHeartHand—whom I regard as a temperate, godly and humble man. His article was titled, “12 Church Enemies”.
“Every pastor will eventually have to face enemies within the church, people who are dedicated to damage and even destroy them,” Murray writes. A perfectly valid concern, you might say. Who or what are these enemies? The answer to this question is where I fear the attempt to be clever or humorous has trumped love.
I thought I’d get a pretty good grade on this list. Although it was written hundreds of years ago, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress describes in timeless narratives and vivid dialogue the destructive forces that attempt to derail the mission of the church from within; arguably his imagery is only slightly caricatured. On their way to the Celestial City, Christian and his friends encounter Mr. Worldly-Wise Man, Mr. Legality, Formalist and Hypocrisy. Certainly these would be among the foes of the church Murray would list. Perhaps Giant Despair or Judge Hate-good will be mentioned as well—all, of course, in a less allegorical vein, and more likely referred to “properly”, such as worldliness, legalism, formalism, emotionalism, or coldness.
Instead, when I read the article, I was disappointed to find mostly a list of behaviors that may or may not be sinful, probably are more consistent with imperfection, and are rather unfortunately lumped in with truly wicked descriptors. The emotion-language threatens to stir up resentment and anger and stymie any effort to more closely investigate the claims. This is a typical straw man argument, in this case diverting attention away from the battle against real enemies of the church. (See note 1)
I believe David Murray to be a shepherd who takes his calling seriously, yet I am aggrieved at most of the categories that he lists as enemies. I humbly offer some perspective I would hope would be taken into consideration by readers, especially church leaders, before reacting to the tone of the piece. (Below, I cite Murray’s description first; my thoughts are in italics.)
- “Open Enemies: They are in-your-face, out-and-out, no-holds-barred, to-the-death enemies.” Presumably, true “in-your-face, out-and-out, no-holds-barred, to-the-death enemies” would be false sheep, goats, wolves—clearly not people who would be considered “in the church”. They may be physically present, but they are not “of the church” (1 John 2:19).
- “Secret Enemies: They undermine you and oppose you behind your back, in secret, in private conversations.” True enemies do operate this way. But innocent behavior can also be perceived as secret, sneaky or conspiratorial. I’ve been on the wrong end of that false accusation. Just because the person who observes what may appear to be secret or private conversations and believes it proves enmity doesn’t mean that it is enmity.
- “Procedural Enemies: They use ecclesiastical rules and procedure to tie you in knots, to obstruct you, to stymie proposals, to humiliate you in front of others.” Rules are helpful, though sometimes they are inconvenient and unwieldy, and it is always a benefit to a church when there is someone whose personality is attuned to procedure and bylaws. While their input may not always be timely, relevant to the circumstances or nuanced, very often in their minds they are guarding the church against wastefulness, slander, liability and sloth. Many people who put forth a question on procedural grounds do not have humiliation in mind.
- “Voting Enemies: They reserve their opposition for church courts and congregational meetings. No matter what you propose, they are against it. You could propose that “This Church believes in breathing” and you know you’ll have one vote in the “No” column.” No doubt a single vote can derail a proposal—but only if that vote combines with the votes of others. Does every single member of the church have to always agree with every decision made by the congregation or leadership? Do you really want to run out those who don’t because of the way they vote? Do you really want to silence every word of dissent or coerce a “yes” vote through shaming and alienation?
- “Wounded Enemies: You crossed swords with them a few years ago, maybe a doctrinal argument or the discipline of a family member. Those wounds have never healed and now they are just waiting for the right time to exact vengeance.” Because people who are mired in blind hurt for whatever reason deserve to be misidentified as enemies and conveniently alienated from others, separated from any hope of healing or reconciliation, right? Intervention is needed here, not name calling.
- “Financial Enemies: There will almost always be somebody who thinks the pastor is earning too much or spending too much. Although these enemies are often some of the wealthier members, they love to cut the pastor’s salary or benefits.” “Too much” is a relative phrase. And the accusation, “they love to cut . . . ”, is swollen with emotion and wrongfully assigns motive. See also the response above to Procedural Enemies.
- “Doctrinal Enemies: They oppose what you teach and use every opportunity to attack it and to spread the opposite message.” This is a true enemy, as noted in Galatians 1:9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
- “Liturgical Enemies: They like your doctrine but oppose the content or style of worship. They aren’t called ‘worship wars’ for nothing.” Opposition to content or style can come in many flavors or strengths. The person who is concerned that the pounding music and seizure-inducing light show is giving the wrong message about the effective power of the Holy Spirit is not your enemy and shouldn’t be lumped in the same category as the person who insists on KJV only or hymns written before 1700. And that doesn’t necessarily make him an enemy either.
- “Prove-me-right Enemies: They voted to call another pastor but lost. Now they’re just longing for you to fail so that they can be proven right.” This person may indeed be a true enemy, unless, again, motives have been wrongly assigned and no effort has been made to find out whether this is true. If you’re wrong in your presumption that this person seems to be waiting for you to fail, you’ve declared a member of the body to be an enemy of the church (and in effect, an enemy of Christ), and very likely, as a result, the rest of the congregation will hear loud and clear the veiled threat and duly alienate this member. They will dig in their heels, or leave. Is that the result you want?
- “Deserved Enemies: You wronged someone, you humiliated someone, you broke a promise to someone, you acted foolishly towards someone, you annoyed someone. Now they hate you. Your sin brought it upon you. You deserve to have these enemies. You earned them.” I presume this is meant to say “the enemies you deserve”, which is redundant because in all of the previous perceived categories, the enemies would believe you deserve to be hated. This is a matter of church discipline. If it is true that you have sinned, then you must repent, ask forgiveness, and seek counsel from the church leadership. If the other party refuses to forgive or reconcile, that is another matter for church discipline. If the other party refuses to acknowledge restitution or the decision of the leadership regarding reconciliation, again, that is another matter for church discipline. If, however, this is a case of accusing a member of holding a grudge against you over a matter you don’t believe was all that gross an error, you may need to investigate what they perceive about it and how it has been handled. Relationships take a lot more hard work than figuring out which category of enemies a person falls into.
- “Campaigning Enemies: Not satisfied with being enemies on their own, they recruit others to their side and build an army of enmity.” This partially relates to the secret enemies category as it requires observing others’ behavior and drawing conclusions either from fact or from speculation. If others are indeed gossiping and collecting factions, then intervention and action is necessary. But merely projecting guilt upon others because you think that is what they are doing often results in the very division you are supposing.
- “Surprising Enemies: One minister told me that the couple who welcomed him and his family most at the beginning were the same ones at the vanguard of driving them out of the ministry some years later. They smothered them with love at first, then tried to smother them at the last.” Is this to be taken as a warning not to love the pastor too much? Not to change your profile picture or it might be perceived that he’s no longer your bff? There’s a backstory here that needs to be told if this anecdote is going to be included in a list of types of enemies. As my law enforcement husband says, “There are always two sides to a story.”
- “Smiling Enemies: They rarely stop to talk with you, but simply flash an extra-stretch smile as they pass you. Their dagger eyes tell the true story.” Have you never heard of “resting frowny face” (the family-friendly version)? Are you aware that people can only moderately control how and whether their eyes project the feelings that they wish to portray? Is this the lady who is overburdened with responsibilities at church, always has people stopping to ask about meetings or inventories, never gets to enjoy the fellowship after the service because she’s handling inquiries or is on the list for cleaning up the nursery or the kitchen? Perhaps this is the guy who has a lunch date every Sunday with his mom at the nursing home, or who has been distracted all morning with a health concern.
Murray does conclude with a Scriptural injunction that the proper response to these enemies is “love, bless, do good, pray”, and yet I fear the damage is already done. He’s identified members of the body of Christ as enemies and validated any readers who are looking for ways to alienate fellow congregants based on emotions or differences of opinion and not legitimate issues of sin and division. Too many people will read the list and think, “Oh, yeah, I know someone like that!” without reading the follow-up caveat.
Enemies do not simply oppose a position or a person. Merriam-Webster lists that as the third definition out of three. The first two involve hatred and intent to harm. While enemies (people who hate and intend to do harm) can be in the visible church, believing brothers and sisters in the body of Christ cannot be enemies (and not under discipline) and so their opposition shouldn’t be designated as enmity. Christians may fail at properly opposing a position or a person—they may appear sneaky, or dramatically highlight their wounds, or be overly concerned about money, or be inarticulate at expressing their preferences—but that doesn’t make them enemies. It proves they are human, in need of shepherding and help in learning how to voice concerns in a biblical manner. But they are not enemies, and designating them as such does greater harm than their inadequacies could ever do.
This alienation is only one disaster that befalls a church that operates with an enemies list. As mentioned earlier, it serves as a distraction from the warfare that must be waged against the true enemies of a church. Our true enemies are numerous and formidable.
How about this list:
- False Teaching. Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 1 Timothy 3:13; 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:14-19; Titus 2:1; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1
- Worldliness. John 17:16; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:17-32; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17
- Legalism. Acts 15:1; Romans 3:20; Romans 6; Galatians 2; Galatians 3:2-3
- Formalism. 1 Samuel 16:7; Psalm 51:6; Mark 7:6-7; Romans 2:28-29; 2 Timothy 3:5
- Emotionalism. 1 Kings 19:9-14; Proverbs 14:12; Jeremiah 17:9; John 5:30-40
- Diversion. Isaiah 17:10a; Matthew 24:10-11; Mark 4:3-20; Hebrews 2:1-4; Hebrews 6:19
- Coldness. Matthew 24:12; 2 Timothy 3:4; Hebrews 3:7; Revelation 2:4-5
- Toleration of Sin. Ecclesiastes 3:8; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 John 2:15-17; Revelation 2:2; Revelation 2:19-29
- Division. Proverbs 6:19; 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; Ephesians 4:2-6; Ephesians 4:31-32
- Neglect of the Word. Mark 7:9; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; Jeremiah 6:10; Hosea 4:6
No good can come from calling fellow believers enemies. These are people we fellowship with at the table of the Lord, meet with in corporate worship, lay our burdens down together before the throne. To determine that they are enemies when God Himself has declared them His friends at the expense of the blood of His Son is to pronounce that relationships operate on your rules and terms, regardless of what God has done. And because it’s possible that those you suspect are behaving badly are not believers, it’s still not grounds for alienation if all they’ve done is give the appearances of enmity. They are without the spiritual tools needed to do conflict well. Witness to them of the greatest work of reconciliation done in all of history and rightly inform them they are enemies to God—as you once were—and that they can be bought and washed and made new—as you are now.
Jen Wilkin’s article, “4 Ways to Battle Bitterness”, warns us that a diet of speculation, harboring wounds and offenses, devising rationalizations for revenge and retribution will not withstand the trials of life. Bitterness will take root. An unforgiving heart will thrive. We will be tempted to keep others at arms’ length, but there is no peace for the soul, no satisfaction that the Gospel will triumph by taking that path.
“The bitter thirst of injustice is only quenched with the living water of the gospel,” she says. Though we are made new creatures in Christ, sanctification is not immediate—we are not instantly holy and perfect. So there will be mistakes, misjudgments, errors in our thinking, in our habits and ways. We are imperfect people. Christ’s life-giving righteousness is the balm we need, poured over our heads, seeping deeply into our messy lives. What’s broken and damaged and in need of repair in your life more than likely looks a lot different than what’s in need of repair in my life. But Jesus redeems and fixes wasted and broken lives.
In one of his ubiquitous letters, John Newton wrote, “What will it profit a man if he silences his adversary and loses that humble spirit in which the Lord delights?” You probably can fill in the missing details about the situation he was responding to from circumstances within your own life. The time and energy spent on justifying whether and why another person is an enemy bears no fruit! It’s like trying to wash a sow in a mudpit. It’s like trying to replenish the ocean with an eyedropper. What could possibly be an eternally worthy return? Precious seconds have been given over to winning the debate on dubious tactics instead of dying to self, trusting that God knows what’s in the heart of the other person and is fully capable of completing whatever work needs to be done there, and finding joy and contentment in adversity and suffering that He brings into our lives to make us rely upon and desire Him more.
Words have meaning and convey power. Emotionally laden accusations and spurious efforts to single out and shame other travelers are alien ways to the Pilgrim, him whose eyes are trained on the path ahead, discerning truth, battling true enemies and soul-killing error, following the call of the King to his home, to the celestial city. There are enemies aplenty on this journey—there’s no need to build more . . . out of straw.
Notes from L.M.:
1. The straw man argument is a logical fallacy wherein one party describes his opponent’s position in extreme and absurd terms, knowing the straw man is much easier to knock down and defeat than his opponent’s actual points. Most straw men arguments hold an element of truth to them or appear to be logical in their simplest form but count on emotion-laden language and euphemisms to stir up resentment and anger against the opponent—and to stymie any effort to more closely investigate the claims. Invariably, those who count on them in debate use terms like “hateful” and “enemy” as emotional word bombs lobbed into the arena to prejudice the observers. In venues and circles where the outcome has already been determined, any questions about or attempts to clarify any single part of the argument appear to validate the accusation as a whole. Essentially, unless all parties involved are willing to sit down and parse definitions and differentiate between fact and speculation, you simply can’t win a straw man argument.
2. Who is the “you” in my post? First of all, it’s the same “you” intended in Murray’s post. I’m asking “you” to consider these thoughts as you read his list. Secondly, it’s anyone in leadership or any situation where conflict needs to be addressed.
3. I wrote this post a few years ago as I thought through the challenge of laboring through conflict instead of running away from it. It was informed primarily by participation in relationships that have developed in school settings, family gatherings, and church circles, and observation of political and cultural rhetoric. It has evolved thanks to ongoing reading, discussions, and opportunities to strive for peace within conflict. There is no one person or group for whom this message—in part or the whole—is intended. Except for me. I need to hear this all the time.