This post has a negative perspective to it. I freely admit it.
I addressed the positive perspective of it in a recent podcast.
Sometimes we have to face the reality of a sickness before we are willing to seek treatment. Please read the next sentence carefully. One of the greatest sicknesses in our churches in America is disunity. Indeed, many of the problems we think we have are really just symptoms of the breakdown of unity in the church.
The early church in Jerusalem thrived because it was so unified. Acts 2:47 says: “(They were) praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (HCSB). The phrase “having favor with all the people” refers to those on the outside looking at the church on the inside. They saw a selfless and unified church, and were thus attracted to it.
So what are some of the key reasons we are seeing the breakdown of unity in our churches? Though my list is not exhaustive, allow me to share fourteen of those reasons.
- Gossip. Church members talk about one another instead of talking to one another. Paul calls church members who gossip people “filled with all unrighteousness” (Romans 1:29, HCSB).
- Actions cloaked in darkness. I recently heard of a church personnel committee and a few church staff members who worked in darkness to fire a pastor without ever meeting with him first or giving him reasons for his dismissal. Then they refused to respond to church members who were asking questions.
- Failure to confront church bullies. Some church members seek power in a church they can’t get elsewhere. They are devious and dangerous. They must be courageously confronted.
- Self-serving church members. Some church members insist on getting their way for everything from worship style to the order of the worship service. Biblical church membership, however, is selfless and more concerned about others.
- Lack of prayer. A church that does not pray together is likely to fragment into special interest groups.
- Fear of confrontation. Too many church members would rather sweep problems under the rug than deal with them. I know of one church where two deacons were known to be having affairs. No one wanted to deal with it.
- Adopting the hypercritical spirit of culture. This reality is especially true in blogs and social media. I’ve seen many pastors attacked publicly on Twitter and Facebook.
- Low expectations. Many churches have no clear guidelines on what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. If you expect little from members, that’s exactly what you’ll get. And some of them will use their idle time to gossip, criticize, and tear down.
- No church discipline. The majority of churches with which I have familiarity have no process for church discipline, or they have a process in place in theory only.
- Churches known more for what they are against rather than what they are for. This negativity becomes pervasive in the congregation and destroys church unity.
- Fear of losing members. I am familiar with one church plagued by a spirit of divisiveness by one particular member. No members have confronted him because they don’t want to lose one of the biggest givers in the church.
- Failure to be evangelistic. I have never known a church member who is both evangelistic and divisive.
- Power groups. Sometimes the bullies in the church get allies to form power groups. They may be informal groups, or they can be formal groups like elders, deacons, staff, or personnel committees.
- The silent and fearful majority. One church member said it is not always good to know the truth. Such a statement is unbiblical and symptomatic of members who let evil exist because they are afraid to confront it.
One of the greatest problems in our churches is the breakdown of church unity. It is insidious, debilitating, and destructive.
Paul urged us “to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keep the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us” (Ephesians 4: 1-3, HCSB).
Jesus said in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The breakdown of church unity is one of the most critical problems in our churches today. Are you part of the solution? Let me hear from you.
Posted on May 13, 2015
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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I’d say denial of Biblical authority belongs on this list too. When the Bible is not the central authority in a church, personal opinion of those with the power to enforce it becomes the authority in a church. Whether that be one person or a vague majority.
Amen, fellow Jonathan! This should really be first in the list.
Additionally, one way to ensure unity is to broaden the focus and seek to be a church controlled by the Holy Spirit. I think MacArthur’s eight characterisitcs of a spiritually healthy church are helpful toward this (unity, fellowship, worship, evangelism, love, obedience to God’s Word, submission to the Lordship of Christ, and using spiritual gifts to minister to each other).
Bullying church members are a cancer in the body of Christ that must be dealt with or they will ultimately kill the local church.
Many years ago after a Sunday night service I found my pastor on all fours on the lawn beside the church,in the dark,vomiting due to the stress of an entire family of bullies that he inherited.His reward for trying to resist them was a church board that abandoned him,as well as the state bishop.This was my initiation into the fact that not everyone at church actually lived the words of Jesus.
How I wish that were not so.
Everyone has their own perspective in these situations and all of them are valid. Some churches have vicious members that bully, gossip, and destroy. On the other hand, there are more and more men in ministry that think that they are above question of any kind. I’ve seen both situations first hand.
Much of the changes that church leadership have been pushing over the last ten to fifteen years have caused great unrest in the church. There have been church leaders that hurt their flock over disagreement over worship styles. That is unfortunate, especially when we are already beginning to see that some of what the “experts” were saying was pretty much dead wrong. Of course, those same experts are telling us this like they knew it all along.
Each church has its own reality to live in and survive–whether its the church member who is the problem or the church staff that is the problem. In any case, they will account to God.
Overall, I have no argument against any of these points, Dr. Rainer. They seem pretty spot on. The source of the problem may remain up for debate depending on the situation.
Thom, what would you say about doctrinal unity on the elder board? For example, say one elder disagrees with the other elders, to include the pastor, on the doctrine of election. If it’s not addressed, is that fear of confrontation?
Is the elder in clear violation of your church’s or denomination’s statement of faith? If so, then it probably would require some action. My denomination allows for some variance on that question, and I don’t consider it a non-negotiable doctrine, so I personally wouldn’t get too worked up over that one. If the elder denied a more fundamental doctrine, like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus, that would be quite another matter.
I love your quote by Jesus in John 13:35 – something that is missing from many churches today and then people wonder why there is no Unity! It’s because as Jesus also said to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:4, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Why does it seem, though, that when there are problems within a church that the fingers are mostly pointed at the congregation, when, in reality, the source of these problems are coming from the Pastors & the Staff? If a shepherd leaves the gate open and many sheep escape and also allows the wolf to enter, why would you blame the sheep?
My wife has been on staff, myself, as a Worship Team musician, and our son involved in the youth programs – the three of us for the past 16 years (in our “Mega Church”) – and we been victims of the Breakdown of Church Unity. We have watched, in anguish, all the many people leaving the church over the years, with a number of the victims even creating special websites detailing the abuses. The Pastors & Staff members continue to be Bullies, verbally and publicly abusing people, frequently Gossiping about other staff members and the congregation – all of these actions are cloaked in darkness & secrecy. Then there’s the issue of Favoritism with the same people always being elevated in church produced videos and coming up on stage and being paraded around like trophies.
Just to give you an idea: Upon stepping down from staff, as a result from being abused by Pastors & Staff members, the church Accountant pulled my wife aside, before walking out the door, saying to my wife, “Now you’re not gonna mention any of this to anybody, right?”
The Breakdown of Unity begins from the Pastors & its Staff and trickles down. The fault of the sinking of the Titanic lay first with the bold public statement that “even God himself couldn’t sink this ship” … then with the captain, his staff [their poor judgement and decision making], as well as the way the ship was built – it was not the fault of the passengers. How can there be any Unity in the Church, when its Pastors and Staff members are bad-mouthing people both behind their backs and from the pulpit and playing favorites?
You state: “The Breakdown of Unity begins from the Pastors & its Staff and trickles down.” I would suggest to you that I am in a situation where the complete opposite is the truth. Church bullies and antagonists have controlled, through manipulation, intimidation and family power groups. The church has gone through 4 splits in the past 17 years. Our pastoral staff, of which I am a part of, are the leaders who have stood up to the bullies in order to bring elevate Biblical authority, which in turns will lead to true Christian unity. The pastors, in fact, have been the ones to be slandered, criticized, threatened, cursed out, physically accosted…and I could go on. My wife and family have been so abused by the “Christians” in the 3 churches we have served in over the past 17 years, that my wife hates going to church and my oldest child has stated she will never darken the doors of two of the three churches we have served. While I do acknowledge that there ARE pastor/staff who are abusive, my experience is that the majority of abusers are church members.
Anyone who says disunity always begins with the pastor has obviously never been a Southern Baptist. Occasionally it does come from the top down, but in most of my experiences it has actually started with a faction in the congregation and the pastor is just a convenient scapegoat.
I have actually seen both sides of it. Sometimes pastors causing the disunity of the church through abuse of members, nepotism and not disciplining their relatives when they fall into sin. Sometimes the members causing the disunity because they ‘love’ a certain member in leadership so much that they raise dust when he is disciplined because they feel they cannot work effectively when the brother is under discipline. All said, we need to pray for our churches and also our pastors not to give up their faith because of being slandered.
Or sometimes people will get upset at the pastor for a trivial reason. They’ll share their “grievances” with anyone and everyone but the pastor, and then they’ll finally leave the church and take a lot of people with them. All the while they say it’s the pastor’s fault because he’s not “approachable” enough – whatever that means.
I am seeing this first hand where there is a conflict and the one group who have been in the church longer rally others in the church against the other. The sad thing is they are my family and I am the other person. No one asked me for clarification but began to treat me with coldness in our greetings. Apparently this is not the first time but if you go against one, you go against them all. I want to leave but my children love it there and are not aware of what’s going on. There are a few that still speak and are kind to me. It has been the hardest thing to go through. I wish someone would speak up. I don’t care if for me but so that others don’t have to go through this because of them.
Good juxtaposition of John 13:35 and Rev 2:4. In Revelation 2:4, Jesus had stern words for the Ephesian church because they had “left the love they had at the first.” He is speaking, not of their devotion to Him, but of their love for each other (which, Jesus said, is a measure of our love for Him). Hence “I will remove the lampstand from its place” – translation: if the believers in the Ephesian Church did not return to loving each other, before long there was not going to be a Church at Ephesus (the “place”). I think this is the more fundamental problem the Church, universal, is facing and, from which, the maladies mentioned above, spring.
Gossip, backbiting and tattling go hand in hand. That is the most toxic thing in a church by a mile. I’ve seen gossip taken to incredible heights where the gossip attributes his or her lie to the nonexistent “I’ve heard”, and then proceeds to gossip. Then the toxin is out there.
Then there’s bullying I’ve seen members asked “why are you still here, no one likes you”.
The secrecy of a personnel committee can also work to allow a pastor who has an agenda to hamstring his firing as well. Don’t publish what I did wrong. So, the Personnel Committee can’t share the details of a negative review with the Congregation.
Thanks for your blog.
Thanks, Chico. Well said.
Thank you for a great post about what may be the most critical detriments to an effective church. Your number one cause of disunity is so problematic and gossip is such a worldly attractant that measures to limit it have to be a concern. A few years ago when our pastor was on sabbatical, the interim pastor suggested a plan that, although not perfect, has been helpful. Each month a different pair of folks from the consistory (board) are designated as the “sounding board” . Any concerns about happenings in the church are accepted by those folks and written down to assure the person with a concern that the matter will be taken back to consistory and acted upon if that is appropriate. This immediately cut back on the “whispering in the corners” and gave folks some assurance that their concerns were being considered. The sounding board person always reports back to the person who raised a concern or question letting them know what, if anything, was decided.
I love that openness and transparency, Steve. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for the reminders and warning signs.
Thank you as well, Monte.
I wish to add two:
Self-perpetuating/homogenous leadership. The idea that people with different opinions aren’t allowed in leadership is ridiculous but seems to be reality. The same leadership just continues on perpetually and occasionally replaces someone if they feel like they need to but the next person who is allowed to join the leadership will and must have the same opinions.
Not allowing the contribution of members’ talents. If the church has bankers and brokers as members, why are they not put on the finance committee? Why are engineers not put on the building committee? Why is no one asked what his/her expertise is? I have seen too many churches not want to use any expertise, especially that of the young. All that said was that my talents weren’t wanted.
Good input, Mark.
Or just simply ignore the input of someone from whom they don’t want to hear.
What about a situation where the church personnel committee says they can’t tell the church why a staff member was fired? In order to “protect” both the church and the staff member? Is it a symptom of silent and fearful majority for members not to seek the truth?
Personnel issues generally must be kept confidential. Sometimes there could be a criminal investigation involved and then there is the risk of a lawsuit for libel and/or slander.
While legal issues should be considered, most of the time transparency is best. Secrecy and behind-the-scenes conversations create an environment of distrust and disunity.
That is what is happening in my church. I am praying for the church, but members are leaving almost weekly. The secrets are creating disunity, and now I am torn between staying in a church that I have loved, and finding a new one. The gossip is so bad, I think the Holy Spirit has left. Jesus, when praying for the believers prayed for unity. I am at a loss to understand what is going on in the church today.
I am sorry for your pain, but where there is smoke there is fire!
You are absolutely correct! I have seen this so many times!!
The so called “church” should be open enough to tell anybody anything. Especially their members. Has society become so blind to truth and openness?