(Note: This is the third of three articles on the subject of “When Good People Do Bad Things.”)
A wise individual once said that “Renewing your church is like remodeling your house…” If you’ve ever remodeled or attempted to remodel a house you can guess what’s coming… “Renewing your church is like remodeling your house: it will take more time, cost more money, create more stress and make a bigger mess than you could ever have imagined, but in the end, it’s worth it.” Having done a bit of home remodeling and been deeply involved in the renewing of several churches, I can testify to the truth of this statement.
One of the hard, messy aspects of renewing a church is coming to grips with the bad behavior of good people, including ourselves. Churches aren’t devastated by the Devil alone, he must have assistance from the inside. Churches can only be left in need of remodeling by way of the bad behavior of, usually, good people. This is a hard truth to face but we’ve been wrestling with it honestly in this series of articles. We’ve seen that good people sometimes do bad things because: (1) they are deliberately defiant, (2) they are self-reliant and weak, (3) they are guilty of envy, selfish ambition, rivalry, jealousy or pride, (4) they stoop to cowardice, compromise or worldliness, (5) they are ignorant or immature. This brings us to a sixth reason why good people sometimes do bad things.
(6) Sometimes good people do bad things because they confuse unity with uniformity. In one sense of the term, church unity is an unassailable reality: “…in Christ, we who are many form one body…” (f/Romans 12:5). But to work out that unity in actual practice we must, as the Apostle Paul commanded in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” So on the one hand, our unity is absolutely unbreakable; in another sense, it’s as fragile as our feelings on a bad day.
But our unity, which is to be celebrated, embraced and preserved, isn’t uniformity. The New Testament idea of unity is organic and spiritual and it includes and allows for diversity. We are one family, but think of how diverse your extended family is. We are one body, but think of how diverse your body parts are from each other (while sharing the same DNA). God’s intention has always been to create, in His masterpiece, the Church, something the world tries to create but cannot succeed at producing: diversity within unity; unity within diversity. We are to be all kinds of human beings divided by many things but united spiritually in one body and acting in sacrificial love for each other, for God’s glory. While we are to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, we are not commanded to enforce a phony, external, imposed uniformity. Ironically, our attempts to create unity through uniformity destroy our unity! Here are three areas in which well-meaning but mistaken Christians do this:
· Some try to create uniformity on moral issues. Romans 14:1 through 15:7 is the Bible’s most complete text on this subject. The key words are at the beginning and end of the passage:
“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him…Accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 14:1-3, 15:7
In between these key verses Paul talks about what we eat, what we drink and the holy days we observe. Nowhere does he try to bring Christians into uniformity of practice on any of these issues. He doesn’t even tell us his opinions on these subjects. Always the goal is to bring Christians to unity in spite of their diversity. If you’re in or have been in a church which has tried to produce uniformity – through restrictive covenants, written or unwritten lists of rules, shaming, etc. – instead of grappling with the timeless principles of this passage for preserving unity, maybe it’s time to “dig in” to this important and neglected passage and “dig out” the God-ordained way of handling our differences.
· Some try to create uniformity on doctrinal issues. This is not a simple matter because Scripture does emphasize the need for uniformity on the most basic doctrines of the faith. The challenge we have faced for 2,000 years is knowing which doctrines are “fundamental” to our faith and must be adhered to and which are more peripheral and negotiable. This is a big subject which evokes strong feelings in many but consider two passages from II Timothy as a guideline for a balanced perspective.
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” II Timothy 1:13,14
By a “pattern of sound teaching,” Paul seems to be alluding to a catechism, a standardized course of instruction which Timothy had heard Paul teach repeatedly which was to be guarded like a treasure and passed on to the next generation without being contaminated. There are truths which we cannot stray from without endangering the gospel itself.
On the other hand, look at this warning (and there are several similar statements in Paul’s letters to church leaders):
“…Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen… Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know that they produce quarrels.” F/II Timothy 2:14, 23
History bears this out; Thorough teaching of the clear and foundational teachings of the faith produces unity; undue attention to our less vital beliefs or even “stupid arguments” (Paul’s term!) damages our unity in our zeal to create doctrinal uniformity.
· Some try to create uniformity on issues of judgment. Good and spiritual people are going to disagree when facing decisions which are not “cut and dried” Biblically or morally. Many have a hard time accepting this, believing that two spiritually “in tune” people can’t possibly disagree on who to hire, when to fire or any other subject. This view is the source of the insistence, found in many church constitutions, that church boards can’t decide anything without complete unanimity.
In my opinion, this position assumes a level of guidance from the Holy Spirit that the Bible does not promise and leads to needless dogmatism and strife. “God has shown me that we must hire this man now.” “Oh yeah? The Spirit’s telling me that we should do no such thing!” I once admonished a fellow church leader to “Please stop acting like you’re Moses, just descended from Mount Sinai, every time you have a proposal.”
Consider the famous disagreement between the Apostle Paul and his friend and former mentor Barnabas over their young co-worker – and cousin to Barnabas – John Mark (Acts 15:36-40). Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark along on what we call their “second missionary journey.” Paul, citing Mark’s return “home to Mama” from their first journey, didn’t want to bring the slacker along. The dispute resulted in Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways. The text says absolutely nothing about which of the two leaders was “right.” God continued to bless both of them and John Mark ended up reconciled to Paul (Colossians 4:10) and writing the book of the Bible that bears his name.
In my opinion, the “split,” though probably uncomfortable for all, resulted in the multiplication of the work and perhaps, the best possible outcome for Mark: Paul’s rejection of him was an unpleasant but necessary lesson (Paul was the “bad cop”); Barnabas’ acceptance of him was the encouragement to return to God’s service (Barnabas was the “good cop”).
Here’s a final reason why good people sometimes do bad things:
(7) Sometimes good people do bad things because they are reacting to other people doing bad things. Biblical examples of this are legion: consider David almost murdering the fool Nabal or Peter whacking the ear off of a soldier who was only doing his duty. In his rashness, Peter was responsible for damage which Jesus had to repair, a scenario repeated every day (Jesus having to repair our damage!).
In our churches this is all too common. A good person does a bad thing, followed by a reaction from another person doing a bad thing, followed by another…and another…and another. We hear about the blowup and ask, “Whose fault was this?” “How did this happen?” It’s eerily similar to our marriage problems and playground scuffles: “He hit me first!”
In our sinful humanness, we want to blame the other guy and we’d love to blame one person: the one with the black hat (we’re wearing white ones). But life isn’t this simple.
In accident investigation it’s called convergence. When an airliner crashes and kills hundreds, the investigation usually finds a convergence of causes, not just one villain. There is almost always human error, converging with bad weather and mechanical malfunction – sometimes something as simple as a burned out “idiot light.” It’s the same way in our churches; there is seldom one culprit who caused the disaster.
The Biblical principle is simple and tough and wonderful. With the resource of the Holy Spirit – see Galatians 5:22,23 – none of us have to react. The Christian life as depicted in the New Testament is wondrously proactive; never reactive. We have the power to do right, no matter what anybody else is doing. Every command of the New Testament is a promise because of the grace of God and the Spirit of God. We are each responsible for doing right. I teach “no excuses Christianity,” do “no excuses marriage counseling” and “no excuses church conflict resolution.” Thank God that He has given you the power to do right instead of excuses for doing wrong!
This means that if Fred and Ethyl and Pastor Smith and Deacon Jones all sin against you, they’re responsible before God for their sin. But you don’t have to react. Christian psychologist Dan Greene says that “You can’t control what others do to you or what others do to others, but you can control what you do to others.”
In this series of three articles we’ve considered seven reasons why good people do bad things. That’s a lot of reasons and represents a lot of human failure. It’s not pleasant to face the sheer enormity of our failure is it? The good news is that every real Christian has been justified – pronounced eternally innocent in God’s court of law – is completely accepted and dearly loved by God. Christians who “mess up” and help create the convergence which leads to the “crash” of a local church are still loved, still forgiven and in many cases, still grow up to become truly Godly people.
If you are a good person (a Christian) who has done bad things, humbly accept your forgiveness – for without the grace of God we will never do anything but make messes – get up, dust yourself off and get back into worshipping, growing and serving in a church full of forgiven but foolish people.