First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it.
Second, this is the fourth article in a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement. In the first article, we studied how we ought to respond to those who advocate error in a divisive manner. In the second article, we studied how we ought to take a softer and more gentle approach towards those who are wrong, but innocent. In the third article, we studied how we ought to wisely discern between what is worth arguing about and what isn't worth arguing about. And in the fourth article, we discussed the importance of (1) recognizing issues of liberty and (2) having forbearance regarding differences in areas of liberty.
This article will be the fifth and final article in this series. In short, what should brethren do when they have disagreements that have NOTHING to do with the Bible (i.e. personal disputes)? It happens, you know. In fact, there are churches that have split simply because a handful of brethren won't get along. I have even heard of an extreme case where a church split wide-open because they couldn't agree on which color of carpet to install in the church building. No scriptures are cited. No biblical truths are at stake. No one is teaching error publically or privately...
Just pigheaded brethren huffin' and puffin' and blowing God's house down.
So how should we handle personal disputes? And yes, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here is a list of recommendations from God's word. We'll start in Proverbs and end by citing a few New Testament principles.
- "In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 10:19). Don't react hastily to the comments and actions of others. As the old saying goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Amen. How many ridiculous quarrels would be avoided if we'd just keep our mouths shut?
- On a similar note, "There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health" (Prov. 12:18). This message is echoed in James 3. Paul, in Ephesians 4:29, put it this way: "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers." Watch what you say. Think of how your words will be heard and interpreted.
- "By pride comes nothing but strife, but with the well-advised is wisdom" (Prov. 13:10). The proud person reacts rashly to defend his "honor," but the wise person instead deliberates and seeks counsel. Instead of taking things personally and rushing to defend yourself, walk away and pray.
- "He who is slow to wrath has great understanding..." (Prov. 14:29). Also, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (16:32). If you have a temper, conquer it, because temper-tantrums in the Lord's church are shameful and divisive.
- "He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding" (Prov. 15:32). Sometimes, brethren rebuke brethren, and it's not always a matter of spiritual error. It may be a suggestion or an offering of advice regarding a parent's care of their unruly child. It may be a subtle rebuke in the form of a request, as in, "Could you modify your tone when you ask questions in Bible class so that you don't come across as angry or abrasive?" As a preacher, I have been asked at times to speak more slowly, or to speak more loudly so that my lessons could be more easily heard. I could have taken those comments personally, but knew that the suggestions were made in love. In other words, respond well to constructive criticism.
- "A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends" (Prov. 16:28). Gossip is incredibly destructive to the Lord's church. As Solomon here indicates, gossip only stirs up trouble and creates unnecessary division. This leads us into the New Testament...
- Follow the process of Matthew 18:15-17 if someone has wronged you. If you have a problem with someone - a serious problem - don't gossip about them...go to them. But should you confront people each and every time you are wronged? No...
- "Love suffers long" (1 Cor. 13:4). In other words, relationships are never easy. When you are mistreated, overlooked, neglected or shafted - be willing to suffer and endure the abuse. Earlier, Paul put it this way: "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Cor. 6:7b). So if someone seriously wrongs you to the point that your relationship has been violated and/or severed, then go to them privately. At the same time, not every offense warrants a confrontation. In fact, the majority of offenses should probably be overlooked. We're all going to have bad days. We're all going to misspeak. We're all going to be jerks sometimes. If you suffer long with me and I suffer long with you, our relationship will not be so volatile.