CHURCH CIVILITY: Christian civility guards churches and denomination, leaders say

Disagreement among Christians is nothing new, but Southern Baptist congregations as well as denominational entities are seeing their conflicts move beyond the walls of the church or institution, spilling over into secular newspaper coverage and Internet distribution. The shift to publicly debated battles often endangers the health and witness of those churches and their extended ministries.

In the Southern Baptist Convention at large, “a level of unprecedented attack upon some of our own leaders” prompted members of the Great Commission Council of SBC entity leaders to gather publicly for prayer and verbal support, challenging what was described by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler as “innuendo, smear, caricature and character assassinations.”

At Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., dissenting church members expressed concern about the removal of a trustee from membership and the leadership of their pastor and other church officials, airing their views on a website, in the media and through a lawsuit. Recently, those bringing the complaint were removed from church rolls by a majority vote of the members.

Pastor Jerry Sutton told the TEXAN that taking the conflict public caused unnecessary strain in the church and distracted staff members from their ministry assignments.

“It’s almost as though we’ve been in a Nehemiah syndrome,” he said. “You’ve got a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. We spend half the time building the church and half the time defending against the attacks of the enemy. Our whole demeanor has been divided. Half my time is spent trying to ask the question, ‘How do we need to respond to this crisis?'”

Two Rivers is not the only Southern Baptist church to experience a conflict that expanded to the media. When a staff member of a Missouri church was accused of immoral conduct, church members who disagreed with the way that and other matters were handled set up shop online to provide court documents, minutes from particular deacon meetings, a mediation report, the transcript of the reconciliation committee’s report, and draft motions to be offered in business meetings.

At another Tennessee church, some members accused their pastor of autocratic decision-making though websites and local media, while a Texas church experienced a publicly aired dispute over plans to relocate.

Because very few church members are actually following the Matthew 18 principle, they revert to “worldly ways to resolve conflict,” said Texan Mike Smith, director of missions for Dogwood Trails Baptist Association.

When he first began serving as a DOM some 20 years ago he dealt with one conflict case a month.

“Now it is a rare day I don’t receive a call concerning a conflict,” he told the TEXAN, noting that the number of cases in which he sought to help individuals or churches resolve their differences jumped from 56 in 2006 to 91 in 2007.

They range from a pastor asking for advice to Smith serving as an official mediator.

Without a knowledge of the scriptures, conflict quickly escalates he said, moving from a problem to solve, then a disagreement, and on to a contest of wills, said Smith, using the theory of levels of conflict developed by consultant Speed Leas. After that, the choice is “fight or flight” and finally, an intractable situation that cannot be resolved.

While Smith said he believes strongly the pastor should be respected and protected, citing Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17-25, he added that Paul also stresses that pastors are to rule well.
A person who has an accusation against a pastor must go to him privately, he stated. He said it is right to address the pastor first when moral failure or doctrinal error has occurred.

“I believe it’s a moral failure when pastors do not lead and care for their church,” Smith said. “Laziness is a moral failure.” Until there are two or three in agreement, “don’t go to the church. Resolution should always be the preferred path” before calling for a pastor’s resignation, he added.

Sutton said a church conflict should always be resolved within the church without lawsuits or contacting the media. He plans to recommend that the church revise its bylaws to clarify what constitutes unacceptable behavior by members during a conflict–a step he recommended other congregations take preemptively.

One reality that makes resolving church conflict particularly difficult is the presence of immature and even unregenerate members in the body, Sutton said. When unregenerate church members will not preserve the purity of the church, godly leaders must take charge and guide the congregation to follow biblical norms, he said.

“I do believe in congregational polity, but I also believe there are a lot of immature believers, a lot of hard-hearted or carnal believers or tares among the wheat,” he said. “There are no pure churches. If the leadership doesn’t step up and take the lead from the spiritual perspective, what’s going to happen is you’re going to get an imposition of the world in the church, which is what’s happened with us.”

Some of the most helpful steps Two Rivers took during the controversy, Sutton said, were reviewing every allegation in a four-hour leadership meeting, holding an extended question-and-answer session for members and seeking legal council. Dealing with distorted allegations in the media, however, was very difficult, he added.

All church conflict, including public conflict, must be handled with a Christ-like temperament and a desire to preserve the purity of the church, Sutton said.

“I’m basically a merciful guy,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve had to learn how to be tough and strong and stand up against attacks.”

James Guenther, an attorney who represents the SBC, told the TEXAN that churches must keep issues of legal liability in mind when handling conflict. Particularly in cases of church discipline, congregations must be careful not to commit slander, he said.

Slander, which is the assertion of an untruth that harms someone’s reputation, can result in lawsuits, Guenther said. To avoid slander, churches should publicly discuss accusations against a member only in a meeting closed to all people except church members. Such a meeting qualifies as a “privileged forum” by law, and the rules of defamation are suspended unless “malice exists” when one person accuses another, he said.

If any church member repeats accusations from a closed business meeting outside the meeting, the church could be liable to a lawsuit, Guenther said, but the law does not permit anyone to sue for statements made in a “qualified privileged forum.” He added that a church can be sued if it slanders a non-member at anytime–even in a business meeting.

In dealing with the media, a church should never lie, Guenther said, although it does not have to reveal every detail about a situation.

“The very worst thing the church can do is to lie about anything, in my judgment,” he said. “They just must not tell an untruth. Now that doesn’t mean they have to tell all the truth, but they ought not to misrepresent anything.”

In recent years, public conflict has also erupted at SBC entities. The International Mission Board censured a trustee after he violated the trustee board’s code of conduct by publicly disagreeing with board actions. He resigned from the board in January after concluding reconciliation was not possible.

A Southwestern Seminary trustee resigned after a prolonged public disagreement over the school’s stance on speaking in tongues and private prayer language.

Former IMB trustee Bob Pearle told the TEXAN that there is “room for dissent” on SBC trustee boards, but the proper forum for that dissent is in trustee meetings rather than on blogs or other public forums.

“As a trustee, you have a responsibility to that institution,” said Pearle, pastor of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth. “And you stand up for your position. And when you vote, when it all comes down to vote, then you cast your vote. Then if you lose, then you support the majority. That’s the way it works.

“Then if not, and you just can’t handle that, then I think the honorable thing to do is to resign. Then after you resign, if you want to publicly state something, then I think you can do that. But I think as a trustee of an institution, you work from within.”

When trustees air their disagreements publicly, facts tend to be distorted and only partial truths are told in the interest of pushing a personal agenda, said Pearle, who rotated off the IMB trustee board in 2006.

Civil debate among Southern Baptists is possible and even desirable when done with the correct heart, he said. Pearle cited as an example the discussion of Calvinism by seminary presidents Paige Patterson and R. Albert Mohler Jr. at a breakout session of the 2006 SBC Pastor’s Conference.

“Where there can be true discourse and differing opinions is where there is mutual respect and … the data is not skewed and in that there are not snide remarks,” he said.

Eric C. Redmond, a trustee at Southwestern Seminary, said trustees should view themselves as servants rather than individuals who have a right to express every opinion publicly.

“I would suggest that complaints against the denomination aired in public are often an attempt to bring about justice by means of rousing a public outcry,” said Redmond, second vice president of the SBC and pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md. “Where is Jesus’ ethic in this approach?

“I understand that we are stewards for the entire convention, and that we have a responsibility before the messengers to the annual meeting and all of the member churches. But we are not simply individual stewards. We are trustees, not just an individual trustee. It might be the glory of trustees to search out a matter, but it does not flow from this truth that it is also the glory of an individual trustee to take on the role of public grievance-filer or whistle-blower.”

Redmond also suggested that each trustee’s local church should hold him accountable for conducting himself according to Scripture during trustee business.

In his remarks to the SBC Executive Committee last year, Mohler told those gathered, “There is no room in Baptist life for teasing, for taunting. There is no room for cowardly attacks upon character. There is a right way to raise concerns about those in leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mohler added, describing respectful dialogue with trustees as the correct method.

In an effort to avoid public conflict like that at the IMB and Southwestern, the board of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention adopted a statement of “Principles and Practices of Board Members of SBTC.”

“A board member accepts and supports decisions,” the statement says. “Once a decision has been made, the board should speak with one voice. The authoritative spokesperson for the board is the Chair of the Board. While individual members should avoid Internet blogs or media comments, any public comments must state the board’s decision accurately.

“If a board member believes a decision of the board is contrary to the Mission Statement and Doctrinal Statement of the Convention, the member is free to express that opposition, but must fully explain how and why the decision is contrary to the Mission Statement and Doctrinal Statement of the Convention.”

A similar statement was developed at Southwestern months earlier in dealing with controversy and the IMB board refined their code of conduct years earlier to clarify how trustees should handle disagreement within the body.

James T. Draper, former president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and a leader the denomination’s Conservative Resurgence, said Southern Baptists should be slow to air criticisms of the denomination publicly but admitted public statements were one tool used by conservative leaders seeking to turn the denomination around in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The public forum should only be a last resort when private meetings yield nothing, he told the TEXAN.

“The first thing we always tried to do was to have dialogue. The thing that made the resurgence so visible was the fact that we couldn’t get anything done privately. In fact, as we really got into it, we couldn’t get anybody to even discuss it with us,” Draper said of Conservative Resurgence leaders, adding, “The public forum is always the last.”

Though going public with controversy is always wrong in a local church setting, some publicity seems unavoidable in the SBC at large, Draper said. He cited blogging as an appropriate forum for discussing denominational controversy, provided the blogging is done civilly and with accountability for what is said.

Blogging has become a particularly controversial means of discussing SBC conflict in recent years, with a blog being the main forum on which an IMB trustee was accused of violating the board’s code of conduct. One Southern Baptist pastor laid aside his blog in order to avoid the “bitterness, character assault and false accusations” that medium tends to produce, he said in a final post last year.

Steve Hunter, professor of psychology and counseling at Criswell College in Dallas, agreed that blogs can be unhelpful during church and denominational controversy.

“It’s bad enough talking face to face with our offenders,” Hunter said in an e-mail to the TEXAN. “There is the potential of misunderstanding and miscommunication. With blogs, it is inevitable. Attempting to communicate matters of the heart via the Internet, blogs and e-mails is an accident waiting to happen. I would have a no-blog policy regarding conflict.”

Both in churches and the denomination, occasions for taking a concern public are very rare, he said.

“’Going public’ is the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches when there is a conflict among Christians (Matthew 5:22-26; 18:15-17),” Hunter wrote. “The first step is to do what it takes to work things out with our offender face to face. Yet, ‘going public’ is usually the first thing we do.”

Draper suggested that to maintain Christian civility, Southern Baptists should work together and take a kind tone during conflict rather than an adversarial tone. Following the New Testament pattern for conflict resolution protects us from becoming combative, he said.

“Convictions don’t have to be brutal,” Draper said. “You can disagree with someone, and you can disagree extremely. …I think when you have differences, you ought to sit down and work together rather than being adversarial.”

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