Once upon a time, when I was a young(er) preacher, I remember talking to an older man who had served as an elder in a couple of different congregations in his lifetime. He had seen churches rise, he had seen some fall, but most stayed in that religious limbo of neither growing nor dying.
I complained to him about a few things that I had heard were going on in other congregations – how people were fighting, taking over, developing factions, etc – and he gave me a piece of advice that I still remember to this day.
He looked me square in the eye, and said slowly but seriously, “You know what Brady? The thing that some churches need is a few good funerals.”
I was aghast! How could anyone suggest such a radical solution to a problem like this! After all, these are people’s souls were talking about! You can’t just give up on them!
Over time, as I’ve watched other congregations develop, I’ve begun to see the wisdom in his words, NOT that we need to encourage death, but that there are people that are so toxic and so destructive, that they will literally destroy your church from the inside out.
I don’t want these people to die and I don’t want them to go away, but there’s a very good reason that Paul advocated disfellowshipping in 1 Corinthians 5, as well as marking erring brethren in Romans 16:17-18: some people, if left unchecked, will eat your congregation up like a sumo wrestler in a buffet line.
And when we’re talking about people’s souls at stake – souls that could be lost by keeping someone like that inside the ranks – it becomes a matter of spiritual necessity that they are removed.
**Note: the purpose of disfellowship is not simply to remove them, but to remove them so they will better identify their ways and get back on track (1 Cor. 5:5). I wanted to make this point clear, lest anyone accuse me of being overly harsh.
One of the hardest parts of this process can be in identifying who these people are in the first place. Outside of a blatant sin, how can we know whether someone has the ability to destroy a congregation? And even if their actions are not worthy of disfellowship, it is still important to discern who these individuals are so we, or the elders, can correct them.
Here’s a list of the most common types of church-destroyers:
No surprise here; the person who stands up and spouts false doctrine needs to be handled immediately, without hesitation and without compromise, lest they persuade others to leave the faith entirely.
Paul rightly identified this spirit within Peter in Galatians 2, when he noticed that Peter only wanted to fellowship with the Gentiles when the Jews were gone – a hypocrisy that Acts 15 sought to correct. They were his brothers, after all, and the misguided religious judgment of a few Jewish yuppies should not have convinced him otherwise.
Paul pointed out the error of his way with one simple verse: “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:14). Touché, Paul the Apostle.
The text is careful to point out the fact that Paul did this publicly, A.K.A., in front of everyone and their buddies. Why? Because such a public sin, which had the ability to lead people astray, needed to be handled in a way that let that same audience know that it was wrong.
But necessary? Absolutely.
Other, possibly more private sins, are governed by Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-20, with the escalation of witnesses and judgment dependent on how stubbornly resistant the offender is, but there’s no getting around it: if there’s sin in the camp, it needs to be dealt with immediately, lest it spread to others and affect the entire body (Joshua 7:10-13).
Ah yes, the one who just loves to have all the attention on themselves. This one isn’t hard to spot considering they’re usually front and center 24/7, and when they’re not in the spotlight, they’re busy tearing down the ones who are, while simultaneously talking about themselves, signing autographs, and hopping into their limo like a big shot.
Yeah, they’re not hard to spot at all.
Whenever something needs to be done, they are there. Whenever a spot in the public worship is vacant, they will absolutely step up. When a question is asked in class, they jump in front of twelve other people and shout them down, because after all, no one else’s opinions or comments matter nearly as much as theirs.
But keep in mind what the issue here is: the problem is NOT that they serve (that’s a great thing). The problem is NOT that they talk in class (also a great thing).
The problem is that their sole motivation for speaking and serving is to draw attention to themselves and how great they are. That’s it, that’s all they care about.
Nevermind the fact that other people might want to contribute in some way, the showboat is too busy reminding everyone that he’s the smartest person in the room, which means, by proxy, everyone else is not.
They’re the ones who “love the chief seats in the synagogue,” and they “love for other people to call them Rabbi” (Matt. 23:5-7), because, after all, isn’t the praise of men the same as the praise from God?
Hardly (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).
How does this person destroy a church? Simple: by treating the congregation as if it’s a one man show, they communicate to everyone else that they’re they only ones capable of righteousness. Pretty soon, people will start believing that about themselves, and they will simply fade into the distance.
These people are always up for a good fight, because their word matters most, sometimes even more than God’s (3 John 9-11).
They ostracize those that don’t agree with them, because the absolute worst thing that could happen is for someone else to have an equally valid viewpoint.
They want everyone in the church to know who’s in charge, which is them.
Ironic, considering they didn’t pay for it with their own blood (Acts 20:28).
Have you ever known someone that hated every single thing every other person ever did? They don’t care about finding solutions and they don’t care about other people’s issues, the only thing they care about is that the entire world notices how miserable they are.
It’s their identity, it’s who they are, and it almost seems like the more they complain, the more they will continue to complain, which they will, according to science.
Even worse, they feel like everything in this world is meant to serve them: the carpets need to match their tastes, the thermostat should be tailored to their comfort level, and if a sermon or class doesn’t seem applicable for whatever reason, well then they’re just gonna pack up shop and find someone who will preach what they like (Micah 2:11)!
But no matter how much of a complainer one person is, they have nothing on the multitudes in the wilderness during the Exodus. Nothing.
Imagine in your mind over two million people wandering around in the desert, complaining about this, complaining about that, complaining about everything. Nevermind the fact that God had just delivered them from slavery in Egypt using a series of supernatural plagues, parted a major water source for them to pass through, and annihilated the greatest army in the world to secure safe passage, they were upset because their breakfast was cold.
As humans, they had to eat, so God dropped food out of the sky for them (Exodus 16:4).
Not good enough.
They also had to drink, so God made water come out of a rock (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20
Still not good enough.
How do you please someone like that? You can’t, and you can’t please the complainer either. The preaching will never be good enough, the building will never be as beautiful, the elders will always be lazy, and the complainer will always be persecuted.
The one characteristic that every complainer I’ve ever met in my entire life has in common is a fundamental lack of interest/ability/foresight/whatever to do anything for his or herself. It is a trademark of the complainers that they are always, without fail, the ones doing the least amount of work and expecting the most in return.
It doesn’t matter that they’ve never once had people in their home, everyone else is not hospitable. It doesn’t matter that they’ve never talked to others, everyone else is unfriendly. It doesn’t matter that they’ve never led singing, brother So-and-So should never set foot in a pulpit ever again.
And on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on it goes.
Murmuring destroyed the Israelites in the wilderness, and it will destroy your church if you let it.
Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
A matador is the person who never speaks up, never argues, never contributes, and worst of all, never engages with the congregation that they are a part of. They simply stand to the side and shout a silent “Ole!” as the work passes right on by.
To be fair, some of this is innocent as much as it is destructive. Maybe the person doesn’t feel like they can help or have the resources to contribute much, but regardless, their presence (or lack thereof) is hardly noticed by the ones that they don’t speak to. It doesn’t mean they don’t love them, or are loved in return, but there’s just not much of a relationship to speak of.
A congregation of matadors will watch as the heretic’s teaching runs amok or as the showboat dominates every single situation, and will quietly slip out the side door so as not to “interfere.” They won’t necessarily do anything else to hurt the church, but they also won’t typically do anything to grow it as well.
They’re just kind of…….there.
It sounds harmless, but remember what Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, the ones who were “lukewarm”? He saw their bland state and vowed to “vomit” them out of His mouth because they were so distasteful to His palate (Rev. 3:16). Their state was one of complacency: they believed that they were fine the way they were, when in reality, they could not have been more wretched and miserable and blind and naked if they had tried.
Many brethren are like this. We don’t actively try to hurt the church, but we don’t try to improve it either. Instinctively, we think that the best thing we can do is sit on autopilot.
Jesus has a much different viewpoint. He lambasted the one-talent man in Matthew 25, not because he had so little, but because he refused to use what he had. By not engaging, he was working against his master’s cause (Matt. 12:30).
Christians are not supposed to live life on the sidelines. We are not supposed to sit by and watch as the events of the congregation, both good and bad, pass us by. We are called to throw our hat in the ring, to lace up the gloves, and spend fifteen rounds with the world, ducking temptation and jabbing at unGodliness using God’s Word.
We are called to be combatants, not spectators. A church full of the latter will almost certainly dwindle away, achieving nothing and losing everything.
It’s a sad way for a church to die, but unfortunately, it’s not the only one.