Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When "Friendly Fire" Isn't so Friendly

Nearly two decades ago, Pastor Trey Rhodes was sitting in a meeting of other pastors who were considering the sponsorship of a new church. The local Baptist Association had called this meeting to discuss "concerns" that several of the pastors had relative to this new church proposal. Church planting wasn't nearly as "cool" back then as it is now, and in fact was held in high suspicion in several segments of my denomination. In particular, these guys were concerned about the theology, evangelistic philosophy, and methods this young church planter under their inspection wanted to employ.  In their eyes, he was too close to the "wrong kind of people."

Before long, the meeting turned caustic, with accusations of heresy and being "unBaptistic" being leveled at a young guy who wasn't in the room to defend himself.

That young guy was me.

After hearing several very negative comments about me, Pastor Trey obtained my phone number and called me directly. Over the next several months as we got to know each other and he came to understand who I really was and what I wanted to see accomplished through planting new churches, he became a fan, and later on, a very dear friend. Two years after this, our new church had the opportunity to play a small role in helping Trey launch out himself to start a new church.

Such was the Kingdom advance that resulted from the decision to make a single phone call, and actually get to know someone. It's a shame that doesn't happen more often.

As a guy who spends most of his time working with pastors and seeking to bring the churches they lead to greater missional cooperation, I've spent more time than I want trying to de-fuse misconceptions and get past misunderstandings, and toward the commonalities I know are present for us to be on mission together. To be sure, I'm convinced I serve with some of the finest pastors in the country. I'm thankful that in the northeast, we don't have the luxury of so easily dividing over silly issues and gross generalizations of each other. When you represent less than .01% of the total population, you simply cannot afford to divide on too many things! Nevertheless, even in an area like ours the propensity exists to hold fellow pastors in suspicion, merely on the word from a third party, and without talking to them directly.

We who dare to pastor churches should know better! We preach from a Bible that clearly instructs us to refrain from making judgments on fallacious grounds, and we serve a Lord who was crucified precisely because of the same kind of rumor-mongering, slander, and character assassination that, regrettably, some in pastoral leadership sometimes commit without thinking.

This scenario happens every time we say of one of our fellow pastors "I heard he is a Calvinist! He must not believe in sharing Jesus," or "with the way his church is growing, he MUST be compromising something!" or "I'm not so sure he is 'one of us'."

It continues with assignment of motive without any basis in reality. If he employs a church growth tactic we don't agree with we assume he is "all about the numbers." If he hosts a Super Bowl party on a Sunday night we assume he is "bowing to the idol of professional football." If he engages a segment of his culture in a way we think goes too far, we declare that he has "sold out."

When such claims are thoughtlessly made without so much as a shred of evidence, or without actually trying to get to know someone, those actions say more about us than those we are accusing. To be sure, putting someone else down often makes us appear better, more holy, and closer to God in our own minds, but it does nothing to help the reputation of our Lord Jesus or the advance of His Kingdom.

Making matters worse, too many pastors don't go right to the source, but instead rely on so-called "discernment ministries," organizations who make it their life's work to destroy the ministry of anyone they deem heretical. Funny thing is that many of these so-called ministries are themselves guilty of malpractice, since the overwhelming majority are not directly accountable to any local church, and that should tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Pastors have the intelligence and ability to seek out accurate answers about a fellow pastor simply by reading original source material. When it comes to the "big name" guys, make sure you have read their books before you say anything publicly so that whatever you say you can say with accuracy.

Oh, and when it comes to the pastor across town, the solution is easier still. Don't say a word about him from your pulpit until you have sat down with him personally.

Am I suggesting that pastors should not warn their people when they believe false teaching is present? Not at all! Paul warned us that wolves abound who look like sheep, and part of our role includes the protection of our flocks. But I am suggesting that our current practice of third-party sources and hearsay means we "cry wolf" way too often, and lose the respect and attention of our people in the process, thereby opening them up to REAL attacks from REAL false prophets.
Looking back on my experiences with that Association in planting my first church, I'm thankful for what God allowed me to experience.  Prior to those scars, I was just as likely to assume the worst, especially when it came to people who were not from my tribe.  In many ways, my willingness to reach out to marginalized and misunderstood peoples today  is due to that experience, and the motivation it gave me to make correct and accurate judgments, one person at a time.  Trust me, when you walk closely with Muslims, and/or the gay community these days, its an effective avenue into "hot water" with some evangelicals.  I don't agree with what either of those groups believe, but I've also learned not to tolerate false statements made against anyone, regardless of who they are.

We are not politicians in competition with one another for the "party nomination." We are a band of brothers on the same side of the battlefield, and who need to ensure that, in the midst of all the casualties that already result from the degree of spiritual battle in which we are involved, "friendly fire" isn't the cause of those casualties.

We rightly lament the rampant gossip, backbiting, slander, and character assassination that so often takes place in our churches. We wonder to ourselves how on earth people who are supposed to know and walk with Jesus can act in such ways.

Gentlemen, the sad truth is that many times, they act in such ways because they are following our example! We need to set a better one!
The pastorate needs more good men like Pastor Trey Rhodes. And the evangelical church needs its present leadership to commit to better discernment that is guided by actually getting to know other people. Stopping this kind of ungodly behavior in our churches begins with us.

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