How Should the Church Handle Troublemakers?
This week’s question deals with an issue every church has to face at one time or another. “We have a member who is causing a lot of trouble by insisting that everything be done his way. He has been with the church for a lot of years and thinks that gives him the right to dictate. The problem is that no one wants to deal with him. My question is how should the church handle this?”
Every church I’ve ever known has been started by good-hearten and kind people who wanted to make a difference in their community in the name of God. However, as time went by, this growing group of good-hearten people inevitably attract mean-spirited and controlling people. The problem is this band of people are good-hearten and so they tolerate the controllers, even to the church’s detriment, until it’s too late to do anything because the church has stopped growing and is literally run by one or two bullies.
Why does the church tolerate such self-absorbed boors? It seems there are two reasons. The first is logic based. The church seems to think that it will get hurt if they take a stand against these troublemakers. Often these controllers have longevity in the congregation, or they’re perceived as irreplaceable financial supporters of the church, or they hold a powerful office. To confront or remove them seems counter-productive to peace and harmony – or detrimental to the church budget. A second reason the church does nothing is that it takes passages from the Bible out of context and applies them to this situation. “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5.39) and “Love your enemy” (Matthew 5.44) is interpreted to mean “be a doormat” and “put up with evil,” but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Paul wrote virtually every one of his letters to churches that were having troubles with these sort of people. Not once did he suggest the church wink at the problem-makers nor to tolerate and embrace these people. Indeed, in one passage he suggested they thrown people out of the congregation if they didn’t act with appropriateness (1 Corinthians 5.2). He goes on to say they shouldn’t even associate with people who claim to be Christians but are sexually immoral, greedy, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. And church bullies fall into at least two categories in this list (greedy – they demand their own way; reviler – one who is abusive, especially in their language and demands). Paul ends the passage by paraphrasing Deuteronomy 17.2-7 “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5.13).
Nor did Jesus suggest that the church should tolerate bullies. In Matthew 18 he gave precise instructions with how to deal with these troublemakers. First, go to the troublemaker alone and confront them. If that doesn’t work, do so again in the presence of two or three others. If the behavior doesn’t change, then bring the person before the church. And finally, if there is still no change, the church is to turn them out “like a heathen or a traitor” (Matthew 18.17).
Paul compared the church to the body of Christ and said if one member of the body hurts, then the whole body hurts (1 Corinthians 12.26). The problem with a member of the church who is mean-spirited is that they affect more than themselves -they “infect” the whole body.
Both Jesus and Paul used yeast as a metaphor to make their point about the spread of evil. In today’s culture a better understood analogy is cancer. Just as a cancer begins as a lone cell that affects other cells until, if left unchecked, the whole body dies, so too a bully. Although the bully may begin with a single act that affects only one or two others, soon the malaise has spread through the whole of the congregation. And when the church focuses on itself (or on the bully), it has ceased functioning as the body of Christ because it is no longer focused on its commission – to make disciples.
The church has no business tolerating evil or bullies. Jesus said if a member of the body causes sin then it should be cut off and cast away (Matthew 18.8-9). The same is true for members of the church who insist on being bullies. The church must first try to redeem them by confronting them with their sin, but if that doesn’t work, they must be removed for the sake of the whole church.
It has been said “you choose who you lose.” If the church chooses to placate the mean-spirited bullies, it has chosen, literally, to run off the kind hearten people of the church as well as choosing to not reach out to others outside the church (who wants to go to a church where a bully is boss?). On the other hand, if the church chooses to lose the bully by refusing to surrender to their whims then the church chooses to embrace and nurture those who are kind-hearten and who will in turn bring others to Jesus.