Is This a Hill Worth Dying On?
I once asked a young man in my church how his first year of marriage was going. He responded, “It’s like Vietnam. It’s a war zone. There’s an explosion on every hill.” Knowing the man’s wife I realized it couldn’t be all her fault; she was a godly, rational person. I feared my friend was making rookie mistakes. He was allowing every issue—big and small—to become a test of his leadership. He thought that if he didn’t win the argument, he would appear weak or wimpy. Everything became a matter of principle. Their relationship became a contest. The more he staked out hard and fast positions, the more she bucked against them.
MARRIAGE, THEN DIVORCE
Pastoring a church can feel a lot like a new marriage. And young, inexperienced pastors can make a lot of the same rookie mistakes new husbands make. So how do you know which issues are essential and which are not? Which hill are you willing to die on?
Every pastorate goes through the “honeymoon phase” where there is relative calm as the new guy settles into his office and pulpit. (I personally hate this term. It suggests the church is going to give a bye to the young pastor for a few months or even years, but then they’re going after him!) Even during this phase he is unwittingly stepping on toes. Maybe he’s changed the order of service slightly or the prayer list or whatever words that are always spoken at a funeral. But the congregation is holding its collective tongue.
At some point the honeymoon ends, and the young pastor starts to make moves that he thought the church wanted to be made when he was interviewing. Most people may even be happy about the moves (they aren’t the ones who talk). But a few aren’t (they are the ones who talk!). The conversations start quietly. A conversation here and there in a hallway or Sunday School class. Eventually it makes it “to the ear of a deacon.” He agrees with the complaint but represents it at a deacons meeting as someone else’s problem.
What’s the young pastor do? Sadly, too often he sees the complaint as a challenge to his leadership and becomes defensive. He comes down hard on the “representative deacon.” Everyone backs off and the pastor walks out of the deacons meeting thinking that he stood on principle, put down a challenge to his leadership, and recovered the church’s unity.
At least until the next challenge. And then the next. And the next. In short order the young pastor is employing the same technique with each challenge. He’s facing it head on, taking a hard stand, and “winning” without knowing that he’s paying a price. Every idea or proposal becomes personal; he sees his ideas as a personal extension of himself. He sees his leadership at stake. And before long the gig is up. The pastor and church separate. Irreconcilable differences.
There are some hills in a church on which to take a stand and even die. I’m not about to suggest that a pastor yield on absolutely every issue. If you do, you’ll wind up with a false church! But before we get to the “hills” let’s consider one overarching theme from scripture: unity.
The apostle Paul constantly urges unity in the church because it reflects the very unity of God: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).
Elsewhere he writes, “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
Paul calls on those who are “spiritual” to restore any caught in transgression in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1). And those “who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). Why? For many reasons, but at least for the sake of unity.
But unity always dies at the hands of selfish ambition and fleshly desires.
James writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2a).
Church leaders are not immune to fights and quarrels stemming from ungodly passions and desires. But when they fall prey to such behavior, they fall away from their very calling. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). And Paul says we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Yes, these verses apply to all Christians, but leaders are called to set an example (Heb. 13:7). The leaders appointed in Acts 6 to distribute food are chosen not simply for their proficiency in food distribution, but because they are full of the Spirit and wisdom—they will know how to resolve division in the church.
So before lines are drawn in sand or flags staked out on hills, pastors need to have this peacemaking mindset for bringing unity to the body. They need to be what Mark Dever calls a “shock absorber.” The mature among the body must be shock absorbers for the immature in order to maintain unity.
WHICH HILLS NOT TO DIE ON?
So which hills would I not die on?
- Elders. Even though we at 9Marks believe a plurality of elders are biblical, practical, and very helpful in the shepherding of the church, we don’t believe you have to have elders to function as a church. Wise? Yes! Necessary? No.
- Flags. Too many brothers have made the American flag on the platform a divisive issue. Some have demanded it be on. Some have demanded it be off. We recommend taking it down so that it doesn’t confuse internationals (and Americans) about what it means to be Christian. But we believe it would be better to be united with a flag on the platform than divided with it off.
- Multiple services. We don’t like multiple services because we believe multiple services are actually multiple churches. Yet there are times and conditions that may call for multiple services: maybe a new building is under construction or you are in a restricted country.
- Music. “Worship Wars” are straight out of hell. Satan must think this is one of his greatest victories: to get believers dividing over how they’ll worship the one true God. Surely there must be more give and take on both sides of this war for the sake of unity.
I fear the quicksand is already at my ankles, and some readers will think I’m fully engulfed should I continue building out this list. But the point is, we must recognize the difference between a primary and a secondary matter. I do not want to relegate secondary matters to the unimportant pile. However, I do want to properly weigh them in light of the call to be united, to be of one mind.
In Philippians 4:2-3 Paul writes, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
Paul recognizes that these two, saved, laborers-in-the-gospel have something in common that’s a thousand times more weighty than whatever their disagreement is about. So he calls the church to put down the dispute (secondary matter) for the sake of the gospel (primary matter).
WHICH HILLS TO DIE ON?
So which hills would I die on? Honestly, there aren’t many.
- Preaching. If my church wanted to eliminate the act of preaching and replace it with a dialogue or drama or something else, I’d consider my time of service ended. Hearing and responding to the word of God is fundamental to what a church is.
- “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).
- The early church gathered to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42).
- Paul says “faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
At the end of Paul’s life, sitting in prison, writing what may be his last letter to his young disciple, Timothy, Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-2).
One day, Timothy, you will stand before God and give an account for your ministry, and preaching is what you will want to have been doing between this day and that day. This is a hill worth dying on.
- The Gospel. The gospel is a hill worth dying on, too. Compromise the gospel or substituting anything for our only substitute, Jesus Christ, and the covenant between pastor and flock is broken. Now, the temptations to compromise are seldom clear. It’s not like a church members will show up in your study and ask you to preach from the Book of Mormon. It will likely be more subtle. “Pastor, can’t you go a little easier on the whole depravity thing? Why not do a ten week series on fit bodies or fit marriages?” I know one of minister of music who said to his pastor, “I’d like to break up the three songs you’ve picked out on Christ’s sacrifice; you’ve made a blood medley out of Sunday’s music.” The minister was offended by all the blood!
Again, I’ll stop with a very short list, just two hills to die on. By doing so I leave it to you, reader, to seriously consider just how many primary issues exist in the church that are worth dying for.
I’ll leave you with two final thoughts. First, what we’re really talking about is how to reform a local church. The first rule of thumb in a reforming situation is, don’t reform anything you don’t love. I’m not talking about loving ecclesiology; I’m talking about loving a particular group of people in a local church. If you don’t love that group of people, you will be far too harsh and too quick in your reform.
Second, an old Texan told me when I was in my twenties, “Matt, young people tend to overestimate what they can do in the short run and underestimate what they can do in the long run.” I don’t think I fully realized the truth of that statement until now, well into my forties. We need to be patient with our congregations in the same way that we need to be patient with our children. We cannot expect poorly taught congregations to grasp the deep truths of the faith and apply them anymore than we can expect that from our little children. But we can be patient, teach, and wait on the Lord.