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ARTICLES

WHEN CHURCH LEADERS DISAGREE
Rommel J. Casis (5 July 2004)


How should we feel when our church leaders disagree?

What if we hear about church leaders who resign because of disagreements with other church leaders? What if we hear about a church leader preaching about a church policy that other church leaders openly disagree with? What if we see a furious exchange of e-mails and internet postings where church leaders espouse opposing ideas?

How should we feel? Is it correct for us to say that we can't be the true church if our church leaders disagree?

For many of us, this is a cause for concern as Jesus himself said that a kingdom divided against itself will be ruined (Mt. 11:25). Paul also admonished the Corinthians "to agree with one another" so that there may be "no divisions among them" and that they may be "perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Co 1:10)

Clearly, church leaders must not disagree on the doctrine on salvation and must not preach a different gospel (Gal 1:8-9). To my knowledge, although some churches have revised the First Principles series, the essential gospel or the plan of salvation is still consistent in all churches of the ICOC. But is the existence of disagreement (other than on the plan of salvation) among church leaders a sign that God is no longer with us? Is the current state of affairs so far removed from the experience of the first century church?

The Bible shows us that even in the first century church, disagreements among the top leadership existed.

In Acts 15:36-40, we find Paul and Barnabas, erstwhile partners in preaching the gospel, in "sharp disagreement". The term in Greek implies incitement or irritation. Could it be that Paul and Barnabas disagreed so fiercely that they were irritated with each other such that they had to part company? Thus, even Paul had disagreements with other leaders that went beyond "intellectual differences" but reached the point of "personal irritation". But note that the disagreement had nothing to do with issues of salvation. Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark while Paul did not think it was a good idea because John Mark proved to be unreliable in the past. It could be said that both had valid reasons. Perhaps Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance. On the other hand perhaps Paul felt that the mission was so important that he couldn't risk entrusting it to a man who previously showed himself unreliable. So it seems that they disagreed on "ministry technique". They agreed that they had to go on another missionary journey, but they disagreed on how they were going to go about it. They agreed on the goal but not on the method.

On anther occasion (Galatians 2:11-15) we find Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, rebuking Peter, the apostle to the Jews. Paul writes,

11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong (NIV).

Paul did not hesitate to confront Peter when he believed the latter to be "clearly in the wrong" and he did not mince words in doing so. We can speculate as to what opposing Peter "to his face" may mean. Other translations render the phrase "opposed him to his face" as "opposed him in public". But regardless of the exact meaning, we get the idea that Paul directly and without hesitation pointed out to Peter why he was wrong. In fact, he may done so in full view of everyone. Thus, Paul was not averse to letting his disagreement be known. After all, he later told the entire Galatian church about it.

But lest we get the idea that Paul just loved picking fights with other church leaders, we must note that in his letter he also explained the reason for his opposition of Peter. He was not simply trying to prove that he was right or that Peter was wrong. Foremost in his mind was the need to protect the faith of the Gentile Christians as he noted that, "even Barnabas was led astray."

Ironically, Peter's actions that caused him to be in the receiving end of Paul's rebuke, may have been caused by his fear of criticism by some members of his own congregation in Jerusalem (the "circumcision group"). Perhaps this is the group of Pharisees mentioned in Acts 15:5 who proposed to the church in Jerusalem that the Gentile converts "must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." This may also be the same believers who criticized Peter in Acts 11:2-3 after he preached to and baptized Cornelius and his close relatives and friends. Thus, in the effort to not get into trouble with a particular group in his church he found himself in trouble with Paul.

I am grateful that Paul included this story in his letter to the Galatians, because it gives us a glimpse of how the top leadership of God's churches in the first century interacted with each other. Clearly, top leaders like Peter were not immune from opposition from other leaders or from criticism from members of his own church. Perhaps the current state of affairs is not so different from the situation then in that respect. Perhaps when we were younger Christians we believed that to remain as the kingdom of God, there should be no conflict among the leaders. But now we see that if men inspired By God to write the books of the New Testament can disagree, what more our leaders today?


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