Five Reflections on Pastoral Disagreements
Why might fellow pastors disagree about how to proceed most wisely in a practical shepherding matter?
- Should we recommend that the church excommunicate a certain member?
- Should we take on a certain amount of debt for a building project?
- Should we recommend that a certain person join the pastoral team?
- Should we accept a grant from the government during a pandemic?
- Should we recognize that a certain wife has biblical grounds for divorce?
Rhyne Putman’s new book, When Doctrine Divides the People of God, surprisingly helps us answer why fellow pastors might disagree about such matters.
I say “surprisingly” because the book analyzes doctrinal disagreements, not disagreements over matters of shepherding.
Part 1 explains why people (especially evangelicals) disagree about doctrine, and Part 2 suggests what we should do about it. In Part 1, Putman suggests five reasons we disagree about doctrine:
- We read imperfectly.
- We read differently.
- We reason differently.
- We feel differently.
- We have different biases.
It’s an insightful book.
Putman’s five reasons for doctrinal disagreements also apply to practical disagreements about pastoral matters. What follows are some excerpts from the book followed by my brief reflections on how this may relate to how fellow pastors might disagree about how to proceed most wisely in a practical shepherding matter. (I originally prepared this article to share with my fellow pastors as a devotional at the beginning of an elder meeting in which I anticipated we would be divided on a challenging pastoral issue.)
1. We interpret what has happened imperfectly.
- “The mind is selective in its attentions and limited in its capacity to retain information. . . . The brain, like a computer with low RAM, also has difficulty processing too many details at once, which means we cannot always consider every significant factor in interpretation at the same time” (51).
We are all fallible in how we interpret what has happened.
2. We interpret what has happened differently.
- “In practice, many interpreters use Scripture to prove a preconceived theological system or to reinforce a particular social agenda, slapping a Bible verse on a pet idea to give it some weight or authority” (68).
Similarly, with a practical shepherding matter, we may prematurely conclude what the right way forward is and consequently misinterpret what has happened.
3. We reason differently.
- “The rational process of moving from biblical exegesis to systematic theology is a lot like the guesswork of real detectives” (98).
- “The good news is that certainty is not necessary to have general confidence in our ability to reason through the Bible. The ground for prosecution in a real-world courtroom is not certainty but rather proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt entails only an explanation of the facts so compelling that no other theory seems to satisfy the data” (99).
We should ask ourselves, “Is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt that leads us to decide x?”
4. We feel differently.
- “At times we are more unwittingly swayed by our emotional responses to theological statements than we are by conscious, rational arguments” (122).
- “Before we think about what is right and wrong, we have a gut feeling about it” (131).
- “Biblical scholars and theologians have long recognized that time, place, and tradition can have distorting (or enhancing) effects on an individual’s reading of the Bible” (143).
- “Scripture teaches that sin can distort our emotions and intuitions, and as a result, our beliefs” (147).
Emotions and intuitions play a role in theological diversity as well as in how we approach practical matters.
5. We have different biases.
- “Have you ever gone to a biblical text hoping to find support for a theological position to which you already subscribed?” (154).
- “Researchers in the area of human cognition have shown that people in a wide array of fields trying to make judgments or decisions based on evidence are prone to a type of bias of which they are not aware—a type of bias ‘partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.’ This phenomenon, which researchers call confirmation bias, is ‘the tendency to bolster a hypothesis by seeking consistent evidence while minimizing inconsistent evidence.’ People work with a confirmation bias when they test their hypothesis only in ways that will support it and overlook information that does not support their bias. Research on confirmation bias shows that once a person ‘has taken a position on an issue, one’s primary purpose becomes that of defending or justifying that position’” (155).
- “Confirmation bias in biblical studies and theology has to do with the way someone unwittingly uses and selects the evidence that confirms his or her previously held belief or working hypothesis” (156).
- When we have something to prove, we might skew the research results by restricting attention to one working hypothesis: (1) “Restriction to one working hypothesis can affect the selection of relevant data.” (2) “The restriction of attention to one working hypothesis can lead to preferential treatment of evidence.” (3) “Hypothesis-driven research enables people to ‘see in data the patterns for which they are looking, regardless of whether the patterns are really there’” (160–61).
Each pastor should check himself here. Are we approaching a particular matter with any confirmation bias? Have we already decided what the right course of action must be, and is that making it difficult for us to carefully consider contrary testimony? So often we want to persuade others, and we think of every argument we can to support our conclusion and consequently do not approach an issue with an open mind and with open hands.
Can reasonable, intelligent people (even church elders) disagree with one another? Yes. Putnam explains,
Even reasonable people of similar intelligence can disagree without necessarily being irrational. . . . Frances identifies several disagreement factors that contribute to differences of opinion among reasonable persons, including, but not limited to, (1) data or evidence, (2) time, (3) ability, (4) background knowledge, and (5) circumstances of the investigation. (184)
Pastor, that is helpful to remember when you are on the losing side of a vote on a practical shepherding matter.
I’ve seen some clips of Steve Kerr, NBA head coach of the Golden State Warriors, exhorting his players during a game-time huddle, “Trust your teammates!” (e.g., to Kevin Durant here). That advice applies to a team of pastors, too. When you lose a vote on a practical shepherding matter, you may be tempted to distrust your teammates. And that can breed bitterness and contempt. When you and your fellow pastors don’t think unanimously about a practical shepherding issue, you should disagree with your fellow pastors with love and respect and without any anger or bitterness. As Chris Brauns says, “Fooling around with bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die.”
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For more on this topic, see:
- Matt Schmucker, “Disagreements and Differences among Elders: An Interview with Matt Schmucker.”
- Matt Schmucker, “How Do You Handle Principled Disagreement between Elders?”
- Jamie Dunlop, “Should Elders Insist on Unanimity?”
- Andrew David Naselli, “How Reliable Is Your Memory? 3 Practical Lessons.”