By Matt Fender | December 6, 2021
I read a book a few years ago by Stephen M. R. Covey entitled Business at the Speed of Trust. The point of the book was that in order to communicate effectively in the business context, we need to trust one another. When you are communicating with someone you distrust, that communication becomes inherently difficult. Conversely, communicating with someone you trust is much easier. This is particularly true in the church. Many of us have been in situations where this principle is evident. We are talking with someone whom we regard as an adversary — perhaps someone we associate with certain ideas or with a perceived agenda or movement within the church we oppose. We find ourselves mentally questioning every word the person says, expecting it to be disingenuous. We become so focused on detecting subterfuge and hidden intent that we have a really hard time actually communicating.
We must avoid this low-fidelity mode of communication, especially in the church. Hebrews 12:14 commands us to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” This is a biblical mandate that is included in the vows we take as elders (See BCO 24.6). Because peace is not our natural state in the postlapsarian era, we must strive for it. But we also must not pursue peace at the price of tolerating sin. Some of our disagreements in the church do involve sin. If we are convicted that a course of action advocated by a fellow elder is contrary to the Word of God, then we are duty-bound to oppose it. Depending on the severity and circumstances, dutiful opposition may include appealing a decision to the appellate ecclesiastical courts. Indeed, principled opposition to sin may perhaps even ultimately force us to withdraw from the particular Church (i.e., congregation or denomination) which tolerates the sin in-question. That is not the usual circumstance, however. More often than not, our disagreements involve issues of prudence and wisdom. That does not mean they are unimportant, but in many such circumstances, men of good will can disagree. Those disagreements should not result in distrust and broken relationships.
Sometimes we are of one accord like the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-35. At other times we will sharply disagree like Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41. We need to be careful in such circumstances not to impute bad motives to those with whom we disagree. We need to respect and trust one another so that we can engage in the kind of high-fidelity communication needed to work effectively together. That kind of communication is built on trust and mutual respect.
We are commanded in Philippians 2:3 to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That admonition must animate our interactions as elders if we are to be truly effective in our calling. We all need to listen well to each other and to assume the best of each other. The only agenda we should have when we participate in a session meeting, a presbytery meeting, or a General Assembly session is the advancement of the gospel.
Finally, we need to be careful not to get too puffed up with our own importance. At all times we must remember that it is Christ’s church, and He has promised to preserve it (see Phil. 1:6). The gospel is not going to fail because a church court takes or fails to take a particular action. Our duty is to work diligently while loving one another and honoring our vows. Christ will bring his bride home. We need not be fearful about the outcome of a vote or discussion. We can perform our duty while we love and respect our brother elders. That mutual love and respect will breed trust that will help us all to serve more effectively.
Matt Fender is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA.