The Sound of Iron Being Sharpened
Pastors and Christian leaders sometimes see our work come under criticism. This is often because we were being publicly critical of other Christian leaders.
If you’ve ever experienced this ironic role-reversal, you know that references to Matthew 18 always play a big role. Here’s the passage:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17, ESV)
The problem is that Matthew 18 is not some kind of catch-all that is applicable to every situation. First, notice that it says, “if your brother sins against you.” The conflict here is personal and private. Then, two or three witness are called in when the facts are disputed and the charges need to be established.
But did Jesus need to go to each of the pharisees privately when he criticized them in public? Or did Paul need to go to Peter privately first when they had their confrontation? No. In both cases, the sins were public, they were against the whole church, and the facts were not in dispute. So the responses were public, and that’s how it should be.
My first point is to say that not all conflict is private, nor should it be. This is especially true when we’re talking about public church leaders who speak publicly.
Second, I think it’s important to remember that conflict is a good thing—vital, even. Remember, Proverbs says that “iron sharpens iron,” and conflict is just the of sound iron being sharpened. It’s often painful. That’s OK! Discipline, no matter what form, is painful, but “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Furthermore, it’s common—and easy—for Christians to sit back and criticize what’s going on “out there” in the pagan world. But our commitment is to let “judgment begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). We think that the country has gotten to where it is because we, those of us in the pews and in the pulpits every Sunday, have failed to be faithful. We have failed to obey the Scriptures. And so we actually have a principle of addressing our most careful and pointed criticisms towards the church, and not towards the world.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that means we are having these conversations with our friends and family members. We believe that’s how we, and the church at large, will grow: by recognizing our faults and sins, repenting of them, turning away from them, and turning towards God in obedience and faith.
Third and finally, there is what I might call “the great Evangelical commitment to being nice at all costs.” These days, our discourse is ruled by “how does this make you feel” instead of what’s true and good and right. And so in many parts of our country, and in the Evangelical world in particular, I’m automatically in the wrong if someone is offended by me… for any reason.
Jesus wasn’t “nice,” and there were times when he said and did things that made people feel awful. Paul wasn’t “nice.” In fact, which of the Godly, honorable characters in the Bible—or in history, for that matter—were “nice”? They weren’t. They were a lot of things, but they weren’t nice.
At the risk of sounding like a movie trailer, we live in a world where:
- we kill our own babies to the tune of about a million a year, and this is “freedom” for women
- our supreme court has somehow discovered the right for two men to “marry”
- a Christian couple can lose their entire livelihood for exercising their Christian conscience and refusing to celebrate a homosexual “wedding”
- a transsexual man dressed as a woman (and going by the name “Bendovah Plenti”) is welcomed to my local library to read stories to children, and anyone who thinks there’s something wrong with this in our community is considered a monster
In short, “nice” isn’t working for us. Christians, and particularly pastors and elders, need to be done being “nice.” That doesn’t mean we stop being gentle or peaceable (1 Tim. 3). That’s required for church leaders. But being “nice” is just code for being committed to always making other people feel good. In short, our commitment to being “nice” is simply our way of compromising, and we need to be done compromising.