I don’t often write to you like this. But I’m thinking of the challenges facing you right now in pastoral ministry, and I want to share a thought with you.
As shepherds of Christ’s flock, one of our responsibilities is to warn the sheep when a wolf is on the horizon. We’re in such a time now.
I don’t remember such a sobering moment for us in ministry here in America. There have been many troubling times before, but in some ways this is the hardest I’ve seen in my 50-plus years of ministry. I’ve spoken with wise and mature church leaders in various denominations across the country; I can’t recall ever hearing such sobering expressions of concern about the welfare and future of the local church.
We’re in genuine danger. You men are facing three huge difficulties right now, in addition to all the normal challenges of ministry. First, there are the continuing fears, challenges, suspicions, and hard feelings caused by the coronavirus. Second, there is the fresh outbreak of racial tension, pent-up frustration, and related violence. Third, next week’s election looks to be perhaps more divisive than any we’ve ever faced before—and we’re being warned that violence may follow, whatever the outcome.
Preaching or even just talking with your people about any one of these matters is tricky. No matter your approach, you’ll face misunderstanding and the risk of intense anger. Almost anything you say will be taken as divisive.
As I’ve thought about this, I’ve concluded that our people must be warned about the real possibility of division in our churches—something Jesus himself saw as a constant, dreadful danger. Do your people realize there is more to our divisions than simply different convictions about urgent issues?
Do your people realize there is more to our divisions than simply different convictions about urgent issues?
Behind them all stands the dark figure of the divider.
He is aggressively and continuously seeking to divide our churches. He is behind those inexplicably strong feelings about wearing masks (or not). He is behind the rage that bubbles up when people disagree over things like systemic racism. This is more than simply righteous anger, though there is plenty of that. The anger and suspicion in our culture is so great that it can’t be blamed simply on people who hold strong views, or on liars and provocateurs.
Our people need to be warned that our churches are under attack by a Great Enemy who isn’t just a deceiver, but a divider. This isn’t a mere human battle or a mere moral one; it is spiritual. That’s how Paul saw the great divide in the early church over law and gospel. I’m struck by the repeated apostolic warnings in the New Testament to recognize and stand against the Evil One:
- When the day of evil comes, stand your guard against the divider (Eph. 6:10–20).
- He is on the prowl, looking for people to devour; resist him (1 Pet. 5:8).
- There is no truth in whatever he’s involved in (John 8:44).
- He is the thief who comes to destroy (John 10:10).
- He is the inspirer of disobedience (Eph. 2:2).
- He holds people in bondage (Luke 13:16).
- He shakes people till they come apart at the seams (Luke 22:31).
He’s the divider, the devourer, the deceiver, the destroyer, the inspirer of disobedience—the invisible evil power who is manipulating situations, twisting truths, raising the temperature of emotions.
Of course, people are the problem in all of their suspicions and shortsightedness and judgmentalism and self-righteousness. But we can forget that behind it all is Satan and his persistent attacks to divide the church. When we forget that, we simply blame others—and that’s both shortsighted and also dangerous in the church.
I’m wondering if the people in our churches understand that this is such a vulnerable moment, and I wonder if they realize our responsibility to stand against division and the divider.
Your responsibility as a teacher and shepherd is to instruct and warn against these developing divisions in your church.
Whatever conclusions people draw about these three great challenges to us and our country, it’s even more important they take a conscious, determined, and prayerful stand against the divider. We must withstand his pressures to split us apart.
And how do we do it? I suppose there’s no better place to look than Ephesians 6. Paul is essentially saying, “Recognize the Devil’s divisive, destructive schemes. A spiritual battle animates all your personal, social, and political battles. Determine to take a stand against the threat of division with your brothers and sisters. Stand firm, together, in affirming your unity in Christ. Your unity in the gospel is more important than any of the issues you face. Take time to discern God’s truth in these matters. Resist untruth, but listen well and hear things you may not have heard before. Remember the righteousness of Christ that covers us all in his body. Treat one another humbly, as beloved and treasured by God, even as you see some things very differently. Resist dismissiveness of others.”
There are times to comfort and times to warn. This is a time for warning.