There are few things more devastating to a community and to individual lives than conflicts at church. Somehow we expect difficult moments and relational challenges at work, at home, and in just about every other setting of our lives. But church? Well, that just shouldn’t be.
Okay, yes, we could argue that a local church is full of people too and, therefore, we should anticipate a few challenging relational moments, but much of the angst can be avoided if we would understand the differences between truth, convictions, and preferences.
Ultimately, there are four levels on this continuum, and keeping them clear of each other is critical to the health of your congregation.
1. Biblical Absolutes
As the name implies, these are the truth statements provided for us in the Bible. As an absolute, we mean that these concepts are true no matter when or where we live. For example, the Bible makes it clear that all of us are sinners. That’s true whether you lived in 15th century England or 21st century Mexico, or even 24th century America should such a day ever come. Biblical absolutes stand tall regardless of current culture. The Bible’s insistence that Jesus is the only means of salvation is absolutely true, even though modern thinking wants to open up other roadways to God. No matter our ideas or preferences, absolutes are absolutes–even in a culture that wants to define truth as what works for you.
2. Community Standards
This second level of conviction contains the rules we choose to live by in our community of faith. They are not Biblical directives, but they are agreed upon standards that allow our place in the body of Christ to be evident. For example, most of us worship on Sunday mornings. While local churches have been doing that for a very long time, it’s not a Biblical absolute, is it? We don’t discount congregations that choose to meet on different days, but we have our own agreed upon practices that we maintain. We also choose certain behaviors to either act out or avoid. Here, we often see a church’s membership standards or the “understood” rules we live by. We may not be able to offer chapter and verse to insist that everyone act as we do, but in our community, this is what we do.
3. Personal Convictions
This third group is comprised of those things that we have personally chosen as expressions of our faith in Christ. For some of us, there are things we won’t do because of our own convictions. The Apostle Paul dealt with these at Corinth when the issue of eating meat that had been previously offered to idols arose. Some felt that such eating was inappropriate while others didn’t wrestle with the idea. We should note that Paul didn’t take a side or establish either view as a standard or absolute, but instead made room for each person to follow their own heart and asked them to respect and love each other enough to allow for different choices.
4. Personal Preferences
This final group is filled with all sorts of ideas. It’s “the way we like it” category of opinions and ideas. Music styles, Bible versions, carpet colors, ministry models, and so much more offer different approaches baed on what I personally enjoy most. And yet, while these are the lowest group on the conviction scale, they are often the largest source of conflict. You see, many of us (especially when we’ve taken our eyes off of God’s harvest) simply want things to be the way we like them.
Now, having preferences surely isn’t wrong. You can prefer certain styles of worship expression or decide that you like the New King James Version better than the old one, but when personal preferences aren’t kept personal, problems arise. Any time these start climbing the ladder into the other categories, trouble will soon erupt.
If I insist that my preferences are really my convictions, I will find myself easily offended. If try to make my Convictions into Community Standards, I will become demanding and difficult for others to work with. And if we try turning our Community Standards into Biblical Absolutes, we end up treating our ways and traditions as equal with the Bible.
So keep these things in their proper box. For most of us, that starts with acknowledging our Preferences and allowing others to have some too. We’ve all soon too many congregational battles over stuff like music. While folks on both sides of such issues often act inappropriately, frankly, I’m surprised when those who have walked with Jesus the longest are the ones acting most immaturely, demanding that their preferences become priorities. The priorities at church should be centered on reaching and discipling people, not shaping a community where my favorite things rule the day.
If each of us take responsibility for keep Absolutes, Standards, Convictions, and Preferences in their appropriate boxes, a new level of peace and ministry health becomes possible. And the number of folks driven from church because of our humanity will become fewer and fewer.