Before Division Comes

A Playbook for Pastoral Unity

Bethlehem Conference for Pastors | Saint Paul

There you sit at the elder meeting. Some disagreement again surfaces.

Maybe you disagree about a potential elder candidate. He’s a good friend of one brother. But to you, he doesn’t seem sober-minded. You don’t think he’ll add to the team, but detract. He seems more like a liability than a blessing.

Perhaps you disagree about a troubled marriage. One pastor thinks the wife is mature and has been long-suffering with the husband, who is largely to blame; another pastor thinks the wife has come to imbibe an unbelieving perspective and is angling to be free from her marriage vows.

Perhaps it’s a doctrinal or exegetical disagreement. Let’s say female deacons. You’re on a counsel of eight. The other seven brothers have expressed openness to female deacons, and you’re the one that doesn’t see it in 1 Timothy 3. You think gunaikas there is deacon wives, not women deacons.

Or you disagree about priorities. How often should we inform the church about the latest pro-abortion legislative disaster in our state? How often do we call our people to prayer and some kind of action?

Or maybe it just seems to be the same brother all the time. Clearly the algorithms have the two of you on different feeds. Whatever the causes, you’ve been pulled into different ecosystems of digital influence. You wonder how much of this has been conditioned through these devices.

Our focus in this session is on seeking unity among pastor-elders. That is, unity in the lead or teaching office of the church, variously called pastor, elder, and overseer in the New Testament — three names for one office, the lead office (with deacon being the name of the assisting office). Our task in this session is handling disagreements among pastor-elders.

First, I’d like to make some preliminary assumptions explicit, and then give some practical counsel and reasons for hope.

Preliminary Assumptions

Now, a preliminary word about these “preliminary assumptions.” These actually may be the most important part. Many of the most important factors related to disagreements among pastors begin long before the specific disagreements emerge. I will try to speak to working for unity amidst disagreement, but I suspect the best working for unity happens before disagreement.

1. Church leadership is teamwork.

Even in rural settings, where the idea of a team of pastors may seem unrealistic, we still have the New Testament’s stubborn ideal of plurality. Twice Peter addresses the plural elders in 1 Peter 5:1–5; local church elders are plural in Acts (Acts 14:23; 20:17); so too in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5), and in James 5:14. In fact, every instance of local-church leadership in the New Testament implies plurality.

If I could give you a four-part summary of the New Testament vision for church leadership, it would have team at the heart of it: “local teams of sober-minded teachers.” Four parts: locality, acuity, didacity, and plurality.

“Our churches not only need good men as pastors; they need good men who are good friends.”

But not only plurality. The hope is not just that pastor-elder teams would be plural, but that pastor-elders would like each other, enjoy each other — that they would be friends, not rivals. Maybe “team of rivals” worked in Lincoln’s cabinet. But none of us is Lincoln, and besides, the local church is not the Lincoln administration. My experience has been that friendship, love, genuine affection among elders is not icing on the cake for good eldering. This is part of the cake. Our churches not only need good men as pastors; they need good men who are good friends.

Oh, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). That is, not just put up with each other, but actually enjoy each other, and look forward to being together, rather than dread it. Whether the pastor-elders enjoy their fellowship will soon affect the church. And it will profoundly affect how we work for unity in the midst of the disagreements that will inevitably come.

If fact, related to working for unity, my counsel would be to always be working for unity through friendship, through investing in team dynamics, long before disagreements arise. Work for unity ahead of time, and seek to have such settled, stable unity, that when disagreements do arise, your unity isn’t soon called into question. Then you can give your focus to actually working through the issue, rather than working for unity prematurely.

And get this: when the relationships are strong and enjoyable among elders, you’re not so nervous about conflict and avoiding certain issues. Rather, you’re free to mine for conflict — to ask about it and talk about it long before it becomes an elephant in the room. You read a frustrated look on a brother’s face and ask him to say more, rather than barreling forward to get your preference in the moment. Your relationship is stable enough to try to surface potential disagreements early, rather than avoiding them and letting them fester.

So, church leadership is teamwork — and best done by friends, not rivals.

2. Good teams guard the gate.

That is, they are careful whom they add to the team. They don’t rush the process. They aren’t “hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). So, we ask all sorts of questions up front. Ask about theology and theological hobbyhorses. Work carefully through the elder qualifications (take them seriously!). And ask each other, Do we think this man fits with the shared instincts of our team? Will he be a good teammate? Does he seem to have our chemistry? Or, how will he affect our team’s chemistry?

Remember, this is not “team of rivals.” There are plenty of issues in life and ministry to disagree about, in big and small degrees. Inevitably, some differing instincts reside in your team. They are there, and they will come. After a while together, you’ll be able to plot on a line who’s the most knee-jerk conservative, who’s most compassionate, who’s most hopeful about the world and culture. Those differences of instinct that make a team healthy and effective will emerge soon enough. But don’t try to staff for difference. Difference will be there and arise. Staff for chemistry. Try to build a team of friends who like each other and have significant shared instincts and genuinely want to spend time together, and so come to enjoy the often burdensome work of teaching and caring well for the church together.

At the gate, be clear about what you have in writing. What, if anything, beyond Scripture does your elder team commit to? Do the leaders subscribe to any confession beyond the membership covenant? Is there a pastors’ covenant? Any agreed-upon documents on ministry philosophy? I’d encourage you to have some things in writing (though not too much). Know what it is, and use it.

3. Unity does not require unanimity.

I’ve heard of elder boards who insist on unanimity in their decisions. I don’t think that’s necessary (or good). We need to be wise and patient regarding particular situations. If it’s a huge initiative in the church — say, a capital campaign — you might want to press for unanimity, or very close to it, not mere consensus. And in major decisions like that, don’t rush the process. And for lead pastors, I say don’t bring a fully formulated proposal to the team. Take the initiative. Point in a direction. Give time to think it over carefully. Ask all the brothers to speak in and develop ownership in the process. Give space for that. Mine for hesitations and conflict. Seek to refine the proposal. On major initiatives, do your best to rally the whole team together.

But on other items, it’s simply not worth all the work to get to unanimity, and not necessary. One or two guys have a different opinion, but you have a clear consensus in the team. The decision needs to be made tonight, and so you move forward.

So, that’s one disclaimer on the idea of working for unity. Most things do not need unanimity.

Another disclaimer on working for unity is that true Christian unity is not something we first produce, and definitely not in a moment, but a grace we receive and then maintain and protect, even as we grow and deepen it. Consider Ephesians 4:1–3:

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In Christ, we don’t produce our unity. The Spirit gives it. Once we are in Christ, we have in common with others who are in Christ the most important realities in the universe. Unity, then, is what we seek to maintain.

Yet also there is a sense in which it is attained. Ephesians 4:12–13: Pastors “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood.” The Spirit gives it; we maintain it, even as we pastors lead the church in attaining the unity of full maturity.

“We are prone to move too fast or not at all. Moving forward with patience is most difficult, and most rewarding.”

In Philippians, Paul is writing to a church with some newly emerging unity issues. He wants them to “[be] of the same mind, [have] the same love, [be] in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). He hopes to hear of them that they “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). How, then, might that happen? How might they practically seek to maintain their unity in Christ and together attain the unity of maturity? Philippians 2:3–4 (this text might be the single most important one on pursuing unity):

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

(First Peter 3:8 mentions a similar cluster of virtues with “unity of mind”: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”)

4. Different kinds of disagreement lead to different courses of action.

First, some disagreements on small or silly matters are overlooked by wise, peaceable, magnanimous men.

In 2 Timothy 2, before Paul gives Timothy some of the most pointed words in Scripture on how to deal with conflict, first he says in 2 Timothy 2:23, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” And 1 Timothy 6:4–5 warns us about

an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.

Brothers, “not quarrelsome” is an elder qualification (1 Timothy 3:3).

It’s long been a live issue, but in recent years, online life has thrown gas on the fire. Brothers, you don’t always have to have an opinion. And you don’t have to express your opinion. (This is a particular temptation for word guys like us; words come so easy for some of us pastors.) Don’t let foolish, distant, impractical quarrels divide your pastoral team and ruin your trust with your own people.

Second, some disagreements are on clearly defined matters, like doctrine.

In Acts 20:29–30, Paul warns the Ephesian elders that wolves will rise up from within their own team:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

God made the souls of men in particular to rise to the unpleasant and essential work of protecting the flock from wolves, with its emotional and physical costs. (As an aside, the threat of false teaching, and the necessity of pastors protecting the sheep from wolves, may show plainest of all God’s building of men for the pastorate. God made men to be conditioned for this calling.) And of course, the worst of this is when such errors, doctrinally or ethically, arise “from among your own selves,” from within the team.

Brian Tabb recently wrote in Themelios under the title “On Disagreements in Ministry.” I’d recommend it. He says there,

Christian workers are sometimes morally obligated to separate when matters of essential biblical doctrine and practice are at stake. Some separations and divisions between professing believers are necessary to distinguish true faith and morality from counterfeit Christianity. For example, Paul exhorts, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14), and he explains that “there must . . . be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19). Likewise, John asserts, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19), and he warns against partnering with or receiving any teacher who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ . . . for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 9–11). It takes biblical wisdom, humility, and courage to practice “theological triage” and discern between those hills that are worth dying on, on the one hand, and matters where fellow believers may agree to disagree, on the other.

And even when you find yourself in such a conflict, remember the rest of Paul’s counsel in 2 Timothy 2:24–25:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.

Third, some of the most difficult are gray-area disagreements.

These are issues that matter but are not easily settled by texts of Scripture or shared statements of faith. One classic example is Paul and Barnabas disagreeing about John Mark and separating over their difference in assessment. This is Acts 15:36–41:

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” [So they’re agreed!] Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

In another Themelios essay, Don Carson refers to “differences in vision and priorities. . . . Is it a case of a Barnabas and a Paul unable to reach an amicable agreement on a pastoral issue where both sides feel strongly and can marshal compelling arguments?”

Again, pastor-elders are to be men who are not quarrelsome, but peaceable. And peacemaking is very different from conflict-aversion. To be a peacemaker, one must be willing to engage in and endure conflict, and do so with Christian speech and conduct, but not as an end — rather, aiming for the restoration of peace on the far side.

Which leads us to the practical counsel (after all those preliminary assumptions!).

Practical Counsel

What more might we say about the Paul-and-Barnabas type of disagreement? I’m not here dealing with disagreements on clearly defined matters, or disagreements on trivia, or foolish quarrels insighted by the Internet, but real-life gray-area disagreements between brothers on the same pastor-elder team — and that from my limited perspective (fifteen years as an elder).

When the situation arises, when disagreement emerges that feels significant enough that it draws your attention as a disagreement, here are six counsels (among many others, I’m sure).

1. Rehearse what you share in common.

Hopefully you’ve been working for unity ahead of time: fostering relationships with each other; cultivating affection for each other; keeping short accounts; mining for conflict, rather than letting it fester underground until it erupts through the surface. Remember what you share in common as redeemed sinners, indwelt by the Spirit, caring for the good of this church. Consider how much doctrine and philosophy of ministry you share. And pause to cherish it afresh.

2. Query the disagreement in three dimensions.

In abiding disagreements, query (1) your own soul, (2) God’s word, and (3) the counsel of others.

When trying to discern between controversies to avoid and conflicts to engage with courage, you might query your own soul like this:

  • Is this about me — my ego, my preference, my threatened illusion of control — or is this relevant to Jesus, his gospel, his church? Am I remembering that my greatest potential enemy here is not others, and not even Satan, but my own indwelling sin?
  • What is the tenor of my ministry? Is it one fight after another? Are there seasons of peace? Am I engaging in conflict as an end in itself, or is preserving and securing Christian peace clearly the goal?
  • Am I going with or against my flesh, which inclines me to fight when I shouldn’t, and to back down when I should kindly, patiently, gently fight? As the “servant” of the Lord, not self, am I avoiding petty causes that an unholy part of me wants to pursue, while taking on the difficult, painful, and righteous causes that an unholy part of me wants to flee?
  • Am I simply angry at my opponents, desiring to show them up or expose them, or am I sad for them — better yet, compassionate for them — genuinely praying that God would free them from deception and grant them repentance? Am I more inclined to anger against them or tears for them?

Also, you might want to revisit the elder qualifications afresh related to how you are engaging the disagreement. Which of the essential pastoral virtues are live challenges or come into fresh light in the conflict? Ask, Which single attribute do I need the most help with in this brewing conflict?

3. Carefully ask others for perspective and counsel.

I say “carefully” meaning (1) not to violate confidentiality and (2) not to rally support. You are asking for counsel for you — what you might do, how you might grow and change — not simply for a verdict from a buddy that you’re in the right. You could ask others in the room, fellow elders. Or carefully ask for outside perspective — again with the goal of receiving counsel for how you can be a means of grace, how you might wisely humble yourself and faithfully navigate the situation.

4. Look for objective cues and clarity to go on.

Good decisions are not ex nihilo but “sub-creation” with various givens. You need some objective grist to work with. Perhaps the confusion and disagreement stems from awareness, or lack thereof, of objective givens related to the situation. Rehearse what you know for sure and is not speculation. One way to move toward agreement is to get more of simply a clear given on the table.

5 Give it more time (without negligence).

Related to looking for objectives, you may be stuck because you need more data, another given, another data point, to lead and guide — which might mean you are not yet to a wise point to make the decision. Resist the pressure to make decisions prematurely. Giving it more time means patience, not neglect. This is like untying knots on our kid’s ice skates or untangling a necklace: we are prone to move too fast or not at all. Moving forward with patience is most difficult, and most rewarding.

Also, related to time, if you do begin to discern you’re at an impasse, be careful not to part too quickly. But also don’t stay stuck in an impasse when both sides are really entrenched. From here, there likely is one party that, given the situation, and in hopes of the health of the church, should stand down. Humbly assess if you’re the one who should stand down.

6. Ask afresh how Scripture speaks to the issue.

You might be able to get to this right away, but with a gray-area or jagged-line disagreement, you may simply come across surprising insights as you continue reading, meditating on, and sitting under God’s word. So, the deliberate passage of time may shed new light on the issue, which is why I’ve put revisiting Scripture here at the end, rather than first in the list.

As time passes, you have the opportunity to keep meditating on Scripture every day. It’s amazing what clarity you might get on an issue and what discoveries of biblical wisdom you might gain over the course of a year, say, if it remains with you while you read the whole Bible through. You might start seeing connections you had not previously seen as new issues are raised and become personal through the presenting disagreement. There can be wisdom in letting disagreements pass through a few seasons of the year (especially through winter and seasonally affected places like Minnesota). And other than 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 2 Timothy 2:23–26, another particular passage to meditate on for disagreement is James 3:13–18:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Every Conflict an Opportunity

Many disagreements will lessen, if not resolve, as you proceed patiently, query the Scriptures, query the situation, audit your own soul, and solicit perspective (and exhortation) from wise counselors. But some disagreements prove intractable. As you discuss and keep revisiting the issue, you seem to be getting further and further apart, not coming together. Some disagreements you may be able to live with. For others, it may be a matter of time before some parting will happen, like Paul and Barnabas.

“Disagreement is a chance for deeper harmony, greater friendship, wiser elder actions, and healthier churches.”

And when that happens, my counsel would be walk humbly and carefully as to who leaves and who stays. If the elder board is split ten to one, and deeply entrenched, it’s the one who needs to leave. Navigating a righteous departure demands great wisdom and perhaps even more energy in working for unity.

Let’s close with this hope: in Scripture, conflict is an amazing opportunity for God’s grace. Disagreement is a chance for deeper harmony in the end, greater friendship, wiser elder actions, and healthier churches.

We don’t know any more about Paul and John Mark from Acts. But we do see in Paul’s letters that they ministered together later on. And even this, from the last chapter of Paul’s last letter:

Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

May God give us such hope, and such reunions, even in this life — and even more, even better, together in the one to come.