The deacon meeting descended into chaos after a disagreement about replacing the sanctuary chairs:
You’re not qualified to lead because your son is out of control and disobedient! Just look at Titus 1.
Well, you’re too new a believer, according to Paul in 1 Timothy 3, so you can’t really be on this board.
I’ve been a Christian long enough. You’re fat, which means you have no self-control, and should never have been appointed as a deacon.
The two men rose to their feet and continued abusing one another. Others began to chime in, supporting one man or the other. Hardly an example of “keeping the spirit of unity in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The pastor finally shouted “Enough!” and called for silence. “I’ve been a pastor for nearly 30 years,” he said, “and I have never met anyone I can’t criticize, but I’ve also learned it does not help.”
This pastor had a long challenge ahead of him to restore fellowship and set the deacon board back on a healthy course.
How should leaders handle conflict?
What if the stakes are much higher than replacing sanctuary chairs? What if there are concerns about false teaching, for example? Or serious moral failure among leaders who are held to a high standard?
The key is to continue to point people to Jesus, who leads out of love. In his earthly ministry, Jesus loved people where they were, yet he was always leading them forward in renewed life. The gospel message is our guide.
Godly leaders seek to be in line with the gospel truth they’ve been given. They recognize that they are operating under the authority of Jesus, for his glory, in their God-given spheres of influence. Tim Keller has helpfully pointed out that the gospel message has two parts:
- You and I are far worse than we can imagine (God’s truth).
- You and I are far more loved than we ever dared to hope (God’s grace).
It’s not truth or grace, but truth and grace. Our worst leadership errors occur because we choose a false sense of truth over grace, or a false sense of grace over truth. We veer off into legalism or relativism, as shown in this diagram:
So what does it look like to avoid the two extremes of hedonism/relativism and moralism/legalism?
How do we lead with the truth-and-grace framework in mind?
New Testament Examples of Truth-and-Grace Leadership
In Galatians, Paul writes about confronting Peter because his actions were not in line with the gospel (Gal. 2:14). Peter acted out of legal consciousness of Jewish law in front of other conservative Jews, and stopped eating with Gentiles at Antioch when some conservative Jews were present. Barnabas did likewise. Paul reminded the Galatians about the core of salvation:
So, we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:16)
We also see this truth-and-grace leadership in the account of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus (John 8:3-11). In mercy, Jesus releases the woman from condemnation, but also commands her to stop sinning. She gets both grace and truth.
Let’s go back to the deacon board. The pastor used the gospel message to pull the board back in line. When they wandered into relativism, he reminded them that we are all far worse than we can imagine and need saving. Legalism was more frequently their problem, so he reminded them about Jesus’ example of love and forgiveness. The pastor used every opportunity to lead by example and exhibit grace-and-truth living, fully dependent on the Holy Spirit for his guidance.
It was not easy ministry work, and progress took months.
Godly leadership is a burden you can only carry with the help of the Spirit. Restoring relationships takes more time than damaging them.
Years later, members of that deacon board testify how that ugly night of confrontation was the beginning of “times of refreshing” for the congregation because of the faithfulness of God working through this pastor (Acts 3:19).
Leaders, remember the truth-and-grace reality of the gospel message every day. Pay attention to the Holy Spirit who signals you when you veer off. And, trust in Christ’s grace and truth to help you serve in his name.