I have a problem. I am good at seeing the flaws in other’s ministries. Not so much in the beneficial “let me help you out” way, but in a prideful way that looks down on others from above. I can see why things won’t work, why others are wrong, and why they shouldn’t do it the way they do. Honestly, I see those things to make myself feel better about what I do.
That was definitely the case for me when I transitioned from one church to another. As I heard updates of my previous church, it was always met with the same responses in my heart; it wouldn’t work, they were wrong, and they shouldn’t do it that way. Those judgments were a reactionary means of self-medicating the feeling that I was unwanted. Truthfully, it was more damaging to me than it was to them. Still it was through that process that God began to reveal the flaws in my own integrity.
While we often look at our denomination’s theological integrity, perhaps we would be wise to stop and wonder about our behavioral integrity? It seems that Jesus would care not just about the things we teach but that He would also care deeply about how we treat one another.
Surely, we have all fallen here. It seemed harmless, and maybe even justified, but in-fighting and spiteful comments about other churches come with a higher cost than reward. I am not talking about disagreeing with another church’s practices, but rather, the all too common way we disagree; a method of disagreement that is accompanied by spite, pride, and judgment. I am talking about the way an analysis of another ministry ends up becoming a means to make us feel better about ourselves or look better to others. In my two decades of being in ministry, I have heard and participated in bashing other churches far more than I care to admit. The latest trends, theological shortcuts, sure-to-fail philosophies are all targets in a season of friendly fire.
It’s time we take an honest look at ourselves and consider whether these practices are doing more harm than good.
THERE’S NO SIBLING RIVALRY IN WAR
The reality is that we are all in this battle together, and the idea that we would stop fighting alongside one another and begin to fight against each other is more than missing the point. I think of it like this. I’m raising two boys, and they fight often. I mean a lot. I bet right now they are fighting somewhere over something. It’s in their nature to want their parent’s attention and affirmation, to want power and respect, and when they perceive they aren’t getting those things, the easiest solution to their frustration is with a well-placed fist.
We do this in the church, not with fists but with judgment. It shows up in sermons, staff meetings, and casual conversations. Think about it, why do we say more about the flaws of another ministry than celebrate their victories?
Transparently, it feels good because it gives us the sense of power and self-affirmation that we naturally crave. Like a house full of kids starving to be valued, we are susceptible to sibling-rivalry in the Kingdom. At first, we don’t see it that way, but the competitive comparisons we make ultimately fall into that category.
On the other hand, we see Paul’s entirely different attitude in Philippians. He’s in prison, and others seem to be entirely happy that their rival has gotten what he deserved. They were right about him, and now he was being judged for his mistakes. For Paul, however, the very idea of a sibling rivalry vanishes the instant the news of their attitude gets to him. What is remarkable is that he doesn’t merely ignore their celebration of his misfortune, but instead, he emphatically rejoices that they are doing something positive for Christ. He had the opportunity to take a sibling-rivalry motivated shot at them. He doesn’t. He understands a fundamental principle; there is no sibling rivalry in war. He isn’t battling against another minister. Instead, he fights against “the rulers, authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.” To stop and participate in a battle against his own, in the same trenches he also fights from, is far too distracting from the real battle in front of them all.
We have to see this for what it is; Satan gets a piece of our heart when we stop fighting the battle in front of us, and we start one within our ranks.
Looking at my own heart, some of this stems from a subtle desire to feel a greater sense of worth when it comes to self-perfection or reputation. We want to feel and be known as successful, influential, and innovative. We want to be known as those who didn’t “cave in to the pressures of the world.” We want to be the right church in a world full of wrong churches. There is no problem with wanting to be successful at what we do; the problem here lies at the very core of what we long for. The problem is with us wanting to be known at all.
We must remember that no matter how well we do the things we are called to do or how inventive or wise we are, none of that changes our base identity.
Scripture offers many terms to describe our base identity, but the one that has always connected with me comes from 1 Corinthians. It shows up in the context of a rivalry created by Christians in the church of Corinth debating over their favorite superstar minister. Paul rejects the idea and responds with a simple question, “What after all is Apollos?” In other words, what is the base identity of the one who ministers for Christ? Is their very identity to be tied to some sort of competitive venture where one can be better than another?
He presses his argument home in chapter 4, anchoring this base right where it belongs, at the bottom of a dark boat filled with sweaty, exhausted servants rowing alongside each other, all on the same journey. “This, then, is how you out to regards us: as servants of Christ…” The word for servants isn’t the usual word. It’s a word meaning “under rower.” It was given to the lowly subordinate oarsmen who carried out the commanding officer’s orders. Paul wanted the church of Corinth to envision the absurdity of their cheering for their favorite rower on the lowest, darkest dingiest level of a merchant boat.
We are called to promote THE Kingdom. We are not kings of our own, and every shot we take at another ministry, church, pastor, or staff member reinforces the wrong kind of identity.
3 WAYS TO AVOID THE CASUALTIES OF FRIENDLY FIRE
1. SPEAK NOTHING BUT HOPE in other church’s philosophies, missions, and passions.
A few years back, I complained to another EFCA pastor about something another church was doing and said it would likely fail. My colleague responded on the heels of my criticism, “I hope not.” That was the much-needed pin it took to deflate my pride. My expectation was the polar opposite of Christ’s hope, and it needed to change.
We may not have confidence in what others do, but we can always have hope. We can hope that the Spirit of God will do what we want Him to do, grow the place to maturity and have it overflowing with newly saved individuals.
*If you can’t speak hope about another EFCA church, it’s a sign that something must be resolved.
2. SELF ASSESS
What does it say about your leadership if you have to diminish others to prove yourself?
We often demonstrate confidence in our own practices by deconstructing what we believe to be the flaws in others. It’s par for the course in a world filled with armchair quarterbacks, but in the church, it should always taste sour. There are much healthier places to find our confidence than at the feet of others’ failures. After all, growth is never a path taken at the cost of integrity, and nothing about another person’s downfall is to our gain. If we can stop and assess our own hearts we can learn something God wants us to know. What does it mean when we try to make ourselves look better by making others look bad?
Stop and ask yourself why you are tempted to do it, and let Christ minister to you there in the seat of your insecurities. Proverbs says that the wise man understands the depths of his soul.
“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Proverbs 20:5 ESV
3. SEND THE MESSAGE that it’s ok to be grace-centered.
Everything we do models something for our congregation. The way we speak about other churches sets the tone for how they talk about other church members. It sets the tone for how they handle family issues and work issues. Let’s set tones of grace. Let’s not merely be a denomination with theological integrity but with behavioral integrity. Let’s celebrate the growth the grace of God accomplishes in other places.
When I first shared this blog’s topic with one of our team members, he shared an interesting thought from his days as a car salesman. He explained that one of the number one rules in the dealership industry was to never bash another dealership. It ends up making you look bitter and competitive, and that sort of reputation is not only counterproductive, it also undermines the nature of grace. Not to mention it’s a method of patting oneself on the back that is quite off-putting to a discerning listener. If the auto sales industry can be gracious towards competitors, surely we in the EFCA can be gracious towards our own family.