4 Ways to Categorize Complaints in the Church
Every afternoon, I engage in a ritual sorting. At end of my driveway is a metal container holding items delivered by various messengers. Step one is to sort them into what is important or valuable, and what can be tossed away or ignored.
We should treat complaints from church members the same way. A mentor of mine said every pastor needs to have a blind eye and a deaf ear. He meant you need to learn how to ignore stuff. That’s been good advice.
But sometimes, you can’t ignore a problem. Hopefully this short post will help this pastoral conundrum. Think of this as a way to sort the complaints you hear into four different categories: preferences, opinions, convictions, and attitudes.
Preferences are subjective commitments that have no moral consequence. They can be exercised with little to no impact on the rest of the congregation. Interestingly, concrete examples are very had to find in Scripture. The closest would be what Paul calls “interests” in Philippians 2:4. It’s a general word you could probably even translate to “things.”
In short, we all have things that matter to us, and complaints can arise when church members insist on their things being more important than someone else’s things. There is no clear right or wrong here.
Dealing with Preferences
If preferences are the source of the problem, remind each side that different doesn’t mean bad. If we all sang the same notes in the same way we’d have no harmony. Unison is not unity.
Reminding someone of this should help give him or her a perspective of ministry as a whole. Show them how their thing fits into a big and wonderful collection of things that work together to accomplish the one thing we all should be about. In these situations, be careful about taking sides. Don’t be the champion of any one thing. Remember, no one expects you to do everything, just their things.
These are reasoned conclusions that shape conscience. This informs your moral code of conduct. Believers experience the greatest degree of potential discord when it comes to opinions. Conflict most commonly occurs in a church when one side despises those who abstain or judges those who enjoy (Romans 14:3).
To be clear, opinions are not preferences. They’re deeply held moral principles that are shaped by a biblically-informed conscience, and it is a sin to violate these opinions (Romans 14:14). One believer may have a different opinion than another, usually with respect to Christian liberty. There is a clear right and wrong here, but it’s often relative (Romans 14:23).
Dealing with Opinions
In Romans 14, Paul uses the example of Roman Christians eating meat, presumably sacrificed to idols. For some, it was a liberty to enjoy; for others, it was a conscience-violating offense. The answer was not to quarrel over it. In fact, Paul doesn’t really side with either group.
The same wisdom should guide pastors today. Help each side realize that a biblically-informed conscience is a gift from God, and that both are welcomed by him (Romans 14:3). You may even agree on the issue some day in the future, but until then you need to very careful not to make your brother stumble (Romans 14:13). The pastor should be a capable minesweeper when it comes to protecting the conscious of a weaker person in the faith.
But what about more serious issues like one’s understanding of baptism? Would the body be causing a member to stumble if they deny a request for a certain mode? Possibly. If, for example, a church member is no longer persuaded by our understanding of baptism, then letting him or her go in peace is the best option. The only other choice would force someone to violate their conscience. After all, you don’t want to “destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15), and he must not violate his conscience. This is how we “pursue what makes peace for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
These are the objective facts that constitute our doctrine. We understand them to be the non-negotiable tenets of the faith (Jude 3), and the truth of God worth fighting for (1 Timothy 6:12). Convictions comprise the unifying faith that identifies a Christian. When an individual abandons these, they cease to walk in the faith (1 Timothy 4:1-3), and they become an immanent threat to the health of the body.
This problem is frequently addressed in Scripture, and it’s an entirely different category than opinions or preferences. When someone causes discord in the body because of false doctrine, the response must be swift and decisive. There is a clear right and wrong.
Dealing with Convictions
This is when a shepherd calls on the other elders and eventually the congregation to render a verdict against the offender. The immediate need for rebuke is followed up with excommunication if the individual refuses to repent and return to the truth. This is probably the easiest complaint or conflict to deal with even though it’s broadcast to a larger audience.
Something to remember is that convictions can wrap themselves in a disguise. For example, how does the body respond to a person who is consistently complaining because of their egalitarianism? Is that a conviction or an opinion? Could someone use Romans 14:17 and say, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of authority and submission” and therefore we must allow women to serve as elders? If not, then we’re dealing with a complaint that needs to be treated as a threat to the unity of the body, and requires a more thoughtful response by the elders.
These are voluntary dispositions toward others. Despite having different interests, every believer must maintain a godly mind (Philippians 4:2). In the church at Philippi, there were two women called out by name because they didn’t have the same mind, a word that carried both a visceral and cognitive aspect.
Notice, Paul does not say “Sisters, I’ll tell you who’s right.” In fact, he acknowledges that differences are valid and even acceptable. However, what’s not acceptable is the quarreling that undermines harmony in the church. This is also a clear right and wrong, but in most cases both parties need to repent.
Dealing with Attitudes
Complainers think grumbling is a form of discernment. Evidently, if you affirm that all is well, you’re at risk of being swindled. So you have those who grumble as a way of starting conversations, where an innocuous question about how they’re doing is received as an invitation to air discontentment. Attitudes are hard to change, but the most important thing is that you don’t let their bad attitude give you a bad attitude. Perhaps the best advice is to be a good example of what you expect in others. Listen to them, ask probing questions, and pray God will reveal the toxic nature of their complaining both to them and to those who may be inclined to follow suit.
Since the Fall, maintaining a spirit of unity in the bond of peace has been hard work. Abrasive personalities are a reality, but the way we respond will make things better or worse. Instead of escalating the hostility, or avoiding the problem, simply categorize the compliant and apply the right biblical counsel to bring a person into conformity with God’s standard. And when we complain, let’s be open to the same process.