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Volume 17, Issue 2: Presbyterion

Peace and Purity

Douglas Wilson

The problem of pettiness is not itself petty. Unchecked, it can destroy congregations, and the minister and elders need to be constantly on the alert for signs that "smallness of mind" is threatening the peace and purity of the church.

In many Reformed congregations, including ours, the membership vows include the phrase that the incoming member will diligently seek the peace and purity of the church. Unfortunately, for the petty-minded, this vow is often taken as the basis for destroying the peace of the congregation and corrupting the purity of it.
The phrase peace and purity presupposes a standard. Peace, defined in what way? Purity, by what standard? The prophet Jeremiah speaks about those who heal the wound of the people lightly, who say peace, peace, when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). Not everyone knows what peace is. Jude tells us about those who carouse at our love feasts, pretending to be among us while seeking to corrupt us (Jude 4, 12). Not everyone knows what purity is.
The armor that protects these alien definitions of peace and purity is often the armor of subjectivism. What matters is not what the minister said from the pulpit, for example, but rather how the disgruntled parishioner said he was made to feel. And when the refs stop making the calls accurately, the defending basketball player can pretend to take the charge and flop however it suits him. Of course he was offended. He's on his back, isn't he?
The myth of neutrality plagues us here as well. We often assume that people in community are not leaning one way or the other, but rather just gathering facts objectively. Then, when they get to a certain critical mass of facts, they make up their minds. But neutrality is impossible, especially in the community of the local church. People either love people or they don't. If they love them, then they will interpret whatever happens through that grid. If they do not love them, then they will bide their time, gathering evidence or, to use the scriptural term, a record of wrongs. But everything is interpreted in accordance with the basic demeanor we have toward the other person.
If that demeanor is one of love, then that love is patient and kind (1 Cor. 13:4). It covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). This love is not oblivious to faults in others, but it catalogs the faults that it sees in accordance with the law of charity. When that love is absent, the natural tendency is to find fault. As Spurgeon once put it, faults are thick where love is thin. A fault-finder is petty. But this does not mean that he picks his nit and is ready to bring charges. Malicious and bitter people instinctively know when others are not bitter, and when they are. For those who are known to not be bitter, it is necessary to wait "patiently" until enough "evidence" is gathered to make a plausible case (provided that sufficient editing is done) to those who are not necessarily in an uncharitable frame of mind. For those others who are bitter, it is astonishing how quickly a relationship is formed behind the scenes.
Bitterness feeds on any little thing (which shows the petty nature of it), but knows that when the problem is brought out into the open at the congregational meeting, it will have to have more to say than "pastor's wife took my parking spot at the Christmas service three years ago!" The "concerns" have to grow, either in size or in momentum.
Momentum is created when the behind-the-scenes bitter people (I call them the fellowship of the grievance) get enough people worked up over little things that the number of people involved make it a big deal whether their individual concerns are substantial or not. And many Christians have learned the jargon of pained vagueness. "Oh, I don't know. It is just that the sermons don't speak to my heart anymore. I am not feeling fed." Of course the reason he doesn't feel fed is that he is not eating, but that would be taken as an unloving thing to say. When ten percent of the congregation is talking this way, the nebulous nature of the grievance does not make it any less of a pastoral crisis.
The other way things can come to a head is if the pastor and elders make a point of bringing them to a head. When there is sin in the congregation, the duty of the pastor and elders is to attack sin. This is done by a weekly invitation to the Lord's table, pastoral counsel, phone conversations, home visitations, emails, and sermons. Monsters don't shrink when you feed them, and the best way to feed a congregational crisis is to let bitter people seek out their own food. The easiest thing in the world is to thunder away in a conservative pulpit about the sins of liberals. It is a bit harder to preach searchingly in such a way as to deal with the sin that is trying to take root in the congregation in front of you.
Now of course, there is an important caveat to note here. I am presupposing here a session of godly elders. Nothing is worse than a minister who is carrying on a sordid affair with someone he is counseling, and then gets into the pulpit to declaim against the sin of "gossip."

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