Churches are incredibly vulnerable at particular historical moments. Because of this, church leaders need to carefully shepherd their flocks to prepare them for that flash point when temptations are many. After all, “the tongue is a fire” and “a world of iniquity” and is often “set on fire by hell” (James 3:1-12). This is why there are many opportunities for unrighteous fire in a church. How many? As many as there are tongues, but multiplied by all the conversations that are generated.
There are two very sensitive “moments” that need careful attention – when someone leaves or is disciplined. During these influential opportunities, church leaders, church members and onlookers have particular responsibilities before God to “preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” They need to be extremely sensitive to how the devil will attempt to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10).
When someone leaves your church
When a person leaves, when a key family leaves or when an elder, deacon or a gifted leader leaves the church has entered a season of hyper vulnerability. Each of these situations have their own particular challenges. Let me suggest that the damage done can escalate according to the degree of prominence of the person leaving or is disciplined.
It is always difficult on people when beloved families leave a church. Through it all, we ought to strive for gracious and humble goodbyes, instead of tearing into one another. “For the law is fulfilled in one word, even this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15).
The vulnerability it creates for those who leave
Not only is a church like a “sitting duck” when someone leaves, the person or family who leaves faces a number of important decisions. He needs to grasp the fact that he has responsibilities before God to refrain from putting out a bad report. He needs to understand that, “whoever slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy” (Psalm 101:5).
The people leaving are also exposed in the sense that they may say things they should not – things that tear down and not build up – things that divide and defeat a spirit of love in the church.
The loaded messages you leave them with will stick in their minds for a long time. Even if you say nothing, just disappearing is also leaving a powerful message. The nature of goodbyes is important.
The challenges for the people who stay
The people who stay are probably the most vulnerable because they may feel hurt. They will inevitably grapple with feelings of confusion or anger or uncertainty. This can change people to vipers. Or it may make them feel insecure or that they have somehow missed something and they should leave too. These are the common responses that some people will have and they need to know their responsibility not to seek to use that as an excuse to find that tasty morsel that goes into the innermost parts of the belly (Proverbs 18:8).
When an elder leaves the church
When a key leader leaves, the people in the congregation are incredibly susceptible to a host of negative forces. Everyone in the church needs to be informed up front that if an elder (or even a family in the church leaves) they will be subject to temptations to anger, taking sides, gossip, speculation, rebellion, self righteousness, presumption, wrong conclusions and broken relationships. This situation is a perfect entry point for a host of misunderstandings. It is also a time where people are tempted to take a count of all the wrongs done to them by the people involved, instead of continuing to let them be covered over by love. When someone leaves it is almost inevitable that there will be a wake of hurt feelings. Most of the people will be asking: “Why are you leaving us? Why are you rejecting us? What is wrong with us? Who made you leave? Ok, what is the real story? Whose fault is this?”
In this environment it is common that people will magnify whatever real or perceived problems were there. They will be tempted to make too much of the problems that made the elder leave through speculation. Unfortunately, the sinful human mind often speculates in the wrong direction – toward disunity and anger and separating brothers.
A lust for information
There will be a few who will want to know more than they should know. People in our society believe that they are obligated to know everything about the situation. After all, we live in “gossip nation” where people feel they should know all the dirt. You will find that some people will be relentless in trying to get the “real” story. This lust for information often results in further fracturing of relationships.
But like many things where biblical communications should be followed, everyone is not entitled to know everything and there will always be some who will use this as a point of contention. It is here that a spirit of trust and honor toward those God has placed in authority be upheld.
In times like these, conversation should be tempered by the reality of the timing of the judgment of God. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Cor 4:4).
Temptations for onlookers in the community
Fellow believers in the community also have responsibilities to the Church of Jesus Christ, wherever it is organized as a local church. One of the heartbreaking aspects of people leaving is that you can often expect that some people looking in from the outside, will speak confidently and condemningly about things they know very little about. Often they will judge your leaving either as further reason for condemnation of the ministry and will naturally be found saying hurtful things. People who have harbored hurts or who have an axe to grind are commonly among these onlookers.
When a church member is disciplined
This causes hundreds of dangerous conversations and opportunities to sin. There are two particular vulnerabilities that the devil will attempt to capitalize on. The person being disciplined can be sinned against through the unrighteous conversation of other church members.
Likewise the disciplined church member is extremely susceptible to unrighteous anger and lashing back and making a mockery of the action taken.
Further, people in the congregation will be tempted to dishonor and disobey the authorities God has established in the church. The reality is that church leaders do not see everything perfectly and may make mistakes or even sin. However this is not a valid excuse to escape their authority that God has established in a local church.
What should church leaders do in times like these?
Don’t leave them unprotected – take action. People in the church often need to be reminded of the power of the tongue for evil, for “the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6).
If a church is unclear or untaught regarding the both the authority of the government of the church and the responsibility to govern the tongue, that church is extremely unsafe – poised for a terrible fire. It is a building ready to burn at the slightest spark.
Churches often never recover from the “tasty morsels” that went down to the “innermost being” (Proverbs 26:22). Reputations are destroyed, friendships are ruined. No one wins because love was not “covering” the “multitude of sins” and human failings that surfaced during these opportune moments.
Perhaps this is why Jesus issued very harsh warnings about the use of the tongue,
“Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-37).
How do you have loving goodbyes when it seems so hard and confusing? How do you react to someone leaving? In times like these, it is wise to heed the admonition,
“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29).