Part One of a Four-Part Series
By John Adams, Assistant Director
One can always find pain in the real-world church. One of the great risks in caring for people is that you will be wounded by people you love. As a pastor, some of my most painful experiences were inflicted by people in a church I served. I share that not to place blame, but to point out that following Christ does not delete our capacity to hurt others.
If you’ve been wounded by other Christians, particularly in your church, may I offer some recommendations to help?
How to Handle Pain in the Real-World Church
Remember That This is Christ’s Church
First and most important, remember that any church with followers of Christ, is Christ’s church. Jesus promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18), to call His followers together and by His Spirit to guide them toward spiritual maturity. No matter where a church is on the journey toward maturity, it is His Church. When a church behaves willfully, sinfully, they will answer to Christ. For examples, read Revelation chapters 2 and 3 where Jesus speaks to each church. You will find words of encouragement, but Jesus does not hesitate to issue warnings and rebukes; after all, He only deals in truth.
Take Time to Grieve
Second, remember that if you have been wounded, or seen the church family of which you are a part behave in dysfunctional ways, you are grieving. Let me say it again: if you have been hurt by people in church, you are grieving. Regardless of whether the events occurred years ago or last week, grief may still be fresh; grief doesn’t watch the clock. Our emotions can ignore the passing of time, leaving old wounds feeling as if they occurred yesterday.
Grief cripples our ability to make wise decisions. If we are wise, we delay big decisions until our grief has settled a bit. Too often, when a church family is wounded, some people leave immediately. Sadly, that decision to leave may simply be a snap reaction to pain. We could find ourselves fleeing from pain that has already been inflicted.
Don’t Leave Your Church Family
Third, remember that Christ calls His children to gather together as the church. That makes us family, and when there are problems in the family, breaking up the family rarely solves the problems. In a church family, those who are most spiritually mature have a responsibility to work to resolve problems and bring healing. Generally, some sin lies at the root of the problems, even if that sin is selfishness or a lack of grace. Galatians 6:1-2 instructs the spiritually mature to gently and humbly restore those who have drifted from following Christ and to do so with a keen awareness of their own fallibility.
If you serve as a spiritual leader in a church, whether that church has been wounded or not, may I remind you of your responsibility? Peter challenges those who serve as elders, with or without the title, to care for Christ’s church. In 1 Peter 5:2-4 we read, “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor” (NLT).
While the passage is directed to those who are actively serving as elders and/or pastors, I believe that Christ expects this kind of care from all those who are spiritually mature in His church. He expects us to model, to disciple and to guide, willingly rather than as an unpleasant duty. He expects us to lead with humility and grace, just as He modelled during His earthly ministry. Notice that 1 Peter 5:4 concludes with a promise: Christ is observing how spiritual leaders care for His church, and He will reward those who serve as He expects.
Lastly, if you are a spiritual leader in a church that has been wounded, you need help. As a part of that church family, you too have been wounded and you also are grieving. You need someone to help you as you care for the church. You may need some godly counsel from a seasoned elder or pastor outside that church. In many cases, especially when the church is without a pastor, an interim pastor may be needed to help the church recover and begin to move toward health. I will address the value of an interim pastor in the next article in this series.
Becoming More Like Christ
Until Christ returns, we will be people who sometimes sin. Those sins affect others and will occasionally wound others in our church family. Finding a church where sin cannot happen is not an option since no such church exists outside of heaven. We can, however, live as people who are quick to confess our own sins (I John 1:8-10) and, where possible, reconcile with those we have wounded. When a culture of repentance and grace take root in a church, love thrives. Sin still occurs, but repentance and forgiveness keep on restoring relationships. Those relationships grow to a new level of maturity and strength for having worked through a painful situation together. This is what maintaining the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3) looks like in action. This is how we deal with pain in the real-world church.