The Paper Pulpit
I have spent a little over 62 years serving as the pastor of Southern Baptist churches. It is what I believe God called me to do. It has not always been easy, but it has been both rewarding and enjoyable. Any pastor who does his job well has to deal with many responsibilities — preaching, teaching, counseling, administration, planning, serving and dealing with conflict. The litmus test of spirituality is not the absence of conflict, for conflict will not disappear until we die. The litmus test is how we handle it. Conflict is inevitable. Resentment is optional.
We tend to idealize the first-century church and believe it was a conflict-free environment — but it is not so! Apostle Paul often had to deal with problems in the churches. For example, in the church at Philippi there were two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, who were locked in a difficult conflict. We don’t know what the argument was about, but Paul knew it had the potential to create real chaos within the Philippian church. He pleaded with them to “agree with each other,” to be of one mind. Through twenty centuries human nature hasn’t changed very much, has it?
The reason a pastor has to deal with conflict resolution is that church members are human beings. They are all still in the process of growing spiritually. They aren’t perfect, even though I’ve met some (including preachers) who thought they were approaching that lofty ideal. Church members don’t always agree with what their church has done, is doing or should be doing. Strong disagreement within a church has the potential to detour it from the completion of its mission. That is why I have often referred to my efforts at solving church problems as “putting out brush fires.”
The churches I have had the privilege to serve have all been largely free of the kind of problems that cause major disruption. For this I am grateful. But I have observed other Baptist churches in the cities where I have served experience major problems. Baptist churches are not the only ones to have brush fires that need to be extinguished. It is just that I know more about Baptist churches than I do about others.
Jesus prayed that His disciples “may be one” (John 17:11), but they are often far from it. It is the height of irony that few organizations have fought more often or split more bitterly than churches have. In our country there are more than a hundred varieties of Baptists churches alone. This includes Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, General Baptists, many different kinds of Independent Baptists, Particular Baptists, Seventh-day Baptists, Hard Shell Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Duck River and Kindred Association Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestination Baptists. In 1957 when I was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gibson, North Carolina, I met a man who was pastor of what was called a Fire-baptized Holiness Baptist Church. I did not even know such a denomination existed.
Several years ago a group calling itself the Church of God had a split. Those that left called themselves the True Church of God, and a group split off from that church calling itself The Only True Church of God. Research reveals that there are more than 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. And every one of them was a split. Almost all of them were born out of anger and hostility and withdrawal between people who claimed to follow the teachings of Christ.
I recently read the story of a man who was rescued from a deserted island where he had survived alone for 15 years. Before leaving, he gave his rescuers a little tour of the buildings he had constructed over the years in what amounted to his one-man-town. “That was my house,” he said. “And that was my store. This building was a kind of cabana, and over here is where I attend church each Sunday.”
“What is the building next to it?” he was asked.
“Oh, that is where I used to go to church.”
The story didn’t say whether or not it was a Baptist church, but it probably was. What makes this seem logical to me is that any time two Baptists get together, there will always be at least three opinions expressed.
The Rev. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Sanford.