Elders do disagree at times, no surprise there—unless they all put their brains in a jar and seal it until the rapture! Normal, thinking people come from different perspectives and arrive at different solutions to problems and how things should be done.
Some of the more popular ways of dealing with disagreements, though, are avoidance (under the guise of “unity”), capitulation (fear of conflict), or interpersonal numbness (emotional and spiritual detachment).
Proverbs 27:17 has some wisdom that may help us in dealing with this common occurrence of disagreement: “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (NKJV). Two equally “hard” objects struck against each other make each object more useful and effective in the purpose for which they are intended. By analogy, elders are “hard objects” whose interactions benefit each other. They are “hard” in the sense of not being soft—that is, spiritually strong and of solid substance. Elders are not called to be “yes” men or wishy-washy. In addition, some elders have “strong” personalities. Sometimes elders may also have “strong” shortcomings. Whatever the case, when “strong” men interact, there can be abrasion and heat. But this can be beneficial if handled well.
I have served with weak elders and with strong elders (that could be said by some elders who have worked with me as well!). The latter group are much more uncomfortable for me personally because they challenge my thinking. Working with strong elders makes me face up to shortcomings in my character as listed in the elders’ qualification lists of Timothy and Titus. In fact, it is not too much to say that working with other elders is a crucible for spiritual growth. And, as you know, spiritual growth is never comfortable. So while I personally don’t like disagreements, I value much more highly those elder relationships where men are not afraid to disagree. That means growth for all of us, including myself.
Having that viewpoint, however, doesn’t mean disagreement is a cakewalk. It helps to understand some common causes for disputes among elders (and Christians in general for that matter).
Five causes for disputes among elders:
1. Honest differences of opinion
Many factors contribute to our seeing things differently: differing life and ministry experiences, the most recent book we have read on church life, people we’ve been influenced by, our temperament and spiritual gifting. Wise are the elders who recognize these things relate to wisdom, knowledge and giftedness—and are not on the same level as biblical truth.
My self-image takes a hit when others disagree with me. Why is this? Either I might be wrong (I don’t like to be wrong, or at least don’t like to be seen to be wrong), or the others don’t respect me enough to accede to my “wisdom” and “insight.” Another word for this is “insecurity.” Some people just have a hard time with disagreement.
My turf is being threatened—maybe areas of leadership or ministry into which I have poured days, months, and years are being threatened.
4. Tunnel vision
We each have different experiences in our relationships with the whole flock. My decisions can easily be swayed by a few of the believers who have bent my ear, and I fall for the old but false adage, “For everyone who speaks out, there are probably ten others who feel the same way.” I may listen a little more closely when a complaint resonates with me. The problem with this is that other people may be bending the ear of other elders with a different message. Plus, some people just don’t speak up readily. Not all elders will see and evaluate things the same was I do.
Just plain stubbornness. Arrogance. Refusing to consider that I might possibly be wrong. Assuming others should be able to see as I see. Assuming that I am more spiritual or smarter than the other elders.
So how can we deal with all this so that our disagreements are constructive rather than destructive?
Six tips for constructive disagreements:
1. Keep humility foremost in the arsenal of “weapons” for disagreements.
Peter, the aged apostle, finishes addressing elders directly, then continues, “ … all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b). This weapon is mighty, not against each other, but against the enemy of God’s leadership team, the devil himself (1 Peter 5:8-9).
2. Frequently remind yourselves as a group of the qualifications for your position.
Take particular note of the following elder characterizations (found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1): temperate, prudent, respectable, not pugnacious, gentle, peaceable, not accused of rebellion, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, sensible, self-controlled. Major failure in any of these areas will hamstring the effective working of an elder group. And, of course, “holding fast the faithful word … so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” This qualification, in Titus 1:9, includes knowing the difference between sound doctrine on one hand versus practical applications and personal opinions on the other.
3. Identify carefully the cause of the disagreement.
What is at stake? It is too easy to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes.
4. Discuss the problems openly and acceptingly.
This involves listening, real listening. Sometimes certain words or phrases can trigger negative emotional responses and invoke unresolved conflicts from the past. People, including elders, don’t always deal with the essential issues, particularly when they are wrestling with pride, fear, or unresolved issues. Elders should find opportunities to discuss these things in an open and accepting environment. This does not mean we accept the other’s thinking and deny our own. What this means is that it is OK to talk about our fears, our being offended or being hurt. This can sometimes be hard for us men to do, but it takes both courage and humility to be on both sides of this coin. We must allow others to be real about their thinking and feelings as well as to be real about our own thinking and feeling.
Having a disagreement is not a competition with winners and losers. Though my viewpoint may be wrong on an issue, I am not a failure, nor are the others. The stronger the disagreement, the more deeply held the issues. In other contexts we would use the words “conviction,” “integrity” and “character.” These make for strong disagreements at times. But precisely at that level, “iron sharpens iron.” For some elders’ groups, these words may sound like pie in the sky, but such an environment can and does exist in other elders’ groups. I have been in both kinds.
5. Accept disagreement.
Sometimes conviction leads two or more elders to strongly disagree without attaining resolution. Abraham and Lot had to separate their entourages because of insurmountable practical issues. Paul and Barnabas separated because of strong convictions on what it takes to be a missionary. The Scripture doesn’t make a judgment as to who was right or wrong. They simply parted company—no doctrine was at stake. Of course, where doctrine is involved, we cannot agree to disagree; we must take a stand. Yet a humble elder does not try to use “sound doctrine” as a whip to lash out at those who hold differing opinions on matters of application or opinion.
6. Have courage.
Where sound doctrine is in question or a hypocritical lifestyle brings sound doctrine into question, then confrontation cannot be avoided. There must be a bottom line or you can never be certain you are standing firm on the right things. However, as my old friend and mentor, Harvey Rodger used to say, “ Plant your flag on the right hill!” Paul’s confrontation of Peter, in Galatians 2:11-16, falls into this category. Unbridled pride of leadership is another situation that calls for strong measures, such as was the case for Diotrephes, “who loves to be first among them… I will call attention to his deeds…” (3 John 9-10).
Disagreement is unavoidable—and sometimes desirable—for it can be the means of spiritual growth whether through humility, adjustments to our character, or the strengthening of our courage.