Irreconcilable Differences in Ministry: What if they can’t be resolved?

disagreement-1I’ve been in ministry for a long time. In that time I have met many people that I knew would have the same ministry goals as mine, and it has been a joy to serve alongside them. I have also met many people with whom I knew my ministry goals would not be compatible. The church is a unique collection of people and it means that there will always be the possibility of personality clashes and ministry differences. The former issue is easy to understand, but the latter is more difficult to process. Philosophy of ministry issues have the potential to destroy relationships, rip apart elder boards and cause a great number of pastors to leave if not dealt with properly. These include ideas about how things should run in the church , from the big to the small. Things like – what the pastor should look or act like, and what he should do; what children’s ministries should look like; what worship should look like; what priorities the church should have; and on and on I could go. These conflicts can and often do run deep in churches and sometimes it is best for those who disagree to part ways.

Yet it is difficult for us to admit that sometimes we just won’t see eye-to-eye with others regarding ministry. We are told that we need to love each other and show grace, etc., and we assume that these biblical commands are the same as ‘getting along’ or being ‘nice’ or ‘agreeing’ or whatever societal word we want to use. (See the following blog for discussion of being nice.) But here’s the bottom line. We won’t all get along in the church. We won’t always agree on how ministry should be done in the church. It’s just not going to happen. As Steven Cole says, “You cannot get involved in serving the Lord through the local church for very long before you run into someone whose personality [and understanding of ministry] clashes with yours.”

So what do we do when we have to work with a fellow believer with whom we don’t share the same ministry philosophy and goals? Thankfully Scripture has a record for us of a “sharp disagreement” between two apostles over ministry philosophy that can give us the answers we seek.

Acts 15:36:41 records the following:

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Notice the wording here. Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” that led them to ‘separate from each other.’ Let’s take a closer look at what went on here and then draw some conclusions about it.

  1. Clashes can occur even when no sin is present – Luke makes no mention of either party being guilty of sinning against each other in this “sharp disagreement”. This situation seems to be a case where Paul and Barnabas had distinctive, and strong, opinions about the direction their ministry should take; so strong that it led them to part ways. In my experience philosophy of ministry issues are what unites a church board and fellow ministers. When agreements can not be reached on philosophy of ministry issues, it is often best to part ways.
  2. Clashes can arise between spiritually mature men (cf. Cole) – These men were, as far as we know, theologically compatible, they both were committed to the church, they both had served together for many years and they both had the same desire to minister to the church. Yet they sharply disagreed about how that was to be done. Spiritually mature people can often have significant differences of opinion on ministry goals.
  3. Clashes over the direction of ministry can can become significant enough that they lead to separation – We must be very careful not to assign blame to either of these men in this situation. They disagreed on their philosophy of ministry, on how best to minister to the church. They could not find middle ground on the issue at hand, so they decided it best to separate. Neither backed down from their belief, neither gave in, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to be careful not to assign blame when clashes like this occur. It is probably best to simply acknowledge what happened and recognize that godly men can have clashes over ministry that leads to separation.
  4. Clashes over ministry should be kept between the persons involved and NOT leak into the church (cf. Deffinbaugh) – These men had a personal disagreement, over the direction of the ministry they were both desiring to fulfill. When these disagreements arose, they dealt with it personally. So far as we are told, they did not involve others in the disagreement, especially not the church. The reason? There was no need. Keep the circle as small as possible so that the body of Christ is protected.
  5. Clashes over ministry philosophy should not be taken personally; neither Paul nor Barnabas let their disagreement alienate them as friends and as brothers. (cf Deffinbaugh) – We don’t want to minimize the intensity of the disagreement, but neither should we read into this incident a personal “falling out.” It is a vastly different thing for two men to agree to dissolve a partnership in ministry than to have a friendship turn sour, developing into some kind of personal animosity. We have no biblical evidence that the latter was the case.
  6. Clashes over ministry philosophy are not resolved with a ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ argument (cf Deffinbaugh) – So often, when two Christians differ, they try to sanction their actions by accusing the other of doing ‘wrong’ or of having ‘unresolved issues’ or ‘undealt with ____’ or something of the sort. This situation between Paul and Barnabas was not a biblical issue, in the sense that one of the two was obedient to Scripture and the other was being disobedient. Both Paul and Barnabas were “right” to do what they did, and would have denied their convictions and calling to do what the other felt compelled to do.
  7. Christian ministry does not mean that we have to work in close proximity to each other – We need to be very careful when we speak about Christian unity. Stephen Cole reminds us, “Unity does not mean that we all have to work closely with one another. While we need to be careful not to go our separate ways too quickly, without working through differences, there are times when two strong leaders need to recognize that God is calling them to different spheres of service. Any parting of ways should be done in a spirit of mutual respect and without bitterness or acrimony.”
  8. We should not allow ministry differences to stop us from serving the Lord – Steven Cole again, “The work of Christ is greater than any one of us, and we should keep on serving Him even if we’ve had a clash with another Christian. Neither Paul nor Barnabas let this clash stop them from serving the Lord. They didn’t even take a time out. Instead of one missionary team, now in the providence of God, there were two.”
  9. Separation can sometimes lead to better partnerships in ministry – Only time can truly reveal this to be the case in any present day situation, and it may not apply equally to both sides, but this may actually be the case for us in our ministry situations. It certainly seemed to be the case for Paul. Sometimes God has to separate a Paul from a Barnabas in order for Paul (in this case) to reach the fullness of what God wants him to be. As Bob Deffinbaugh notes,

This strong difference of opinion and of approach was the one means by which God could separate these two “inseparable” friends, brothers, and servants. . . The separation of Barnabas paved the way for the selection of Silas (and others, like Timothy and Luke). I am convinced that for the second missionary journey, Silas was a better suited partner [for Paul] than Barnabas.

One question remains, however. What do we do with Paul’s words about reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5? To put it simply, reconciliation as Paul speaks about in the second letter to the Corinthians was not needed between these men. As we noted above, this was not a sin issue, nor was it an issue that needed the church to be involved (as it would be if unrepentant sin was identified in an elder or pastor; cf 1 Timothy 5:17-20). It was a strong disagreement over the nature of ministry, not a sin issue that needed reconciliation.

Conclusion

Separation is simply a fact of life for the church. In these types of difficult situations we must remember that we are called to be obedient to Scripture and to our consciences regardless of what the ‘other side’ may think of us or the accusations they may throw at us. We need to do the right thing and make sure our consciences are clear before God remembering that he alone is our judge. (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). But we should not be too quick to separate. We need to do some serious reflection and seeking of wisdom as we seek a decision on what course of action we should take. We need to honestly answer some significant questions before we decide to separate our ministry from that of other believers with whom we are currently ministering. Here are the questions we must consider:

  1. Is there disobedience on either side that needs to be addressed?
  2. Is there unrepented of sin that has led to the conflicts I am now experiencing? If so, you need to repent. This repentance may be all that is needed to bring about togetherness.
  3. Have I explored ALL avenues available to me in order to try to make the relationship work?
  4. Are my motivations pure for seeking to separate?
  5. Am I committed to serving in the church after my separation?

Separating from fellow believers is not easy and it brings deep emotions along with it. I know this from personal experience. It is truly sad when Christian believers must separate due to their differences, but sometimes it is necessary; which I also know from personal experience. But it can be done in such away that glorifies God, if we allow Scripture to guide us.

Let me conclude with the words of Steven Cole,

In the case of Christian workers, if they can learn to affirm one another’s strengths, the beauty of the body of Christ can be demonstrated through their working relationship. God gives us differing gifts, and the hand has no right to reject the foot because it is not a hand (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). . .

When we face personality differences [or ministry differences] in the church, we need to be diligent to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We need to seek to work out our differences if possible in a spirit of love and kindness. If we must part ways, we should continue serving the Lord and not let the enemy get us to attack those whom God has given different personalities [and ministries] than He has given us.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

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