How Infighting will Kill the Church

Donald Miller

Most of my friends who no longer attend church, and the majority of my friends no longer attend, have left over petty arguments about theology. It’s not that they left because people didn’t agree with them, they actually left because they got tired of hearing other people argue about their interpretation of scripture. They wanted to talk and learn, and a very small group of people simply wanted to dominate the conversation with something they discovered last year when they read a book. These friends don’t mind subscribing to a theological grid, they just got tired of all the jabbing.

I confess I understand. It’s like attending a dinner party where one guy takes a black and white stand on an issue and the tension enters the room and you really wish you could get back to that conversation about the Italian Renaissance but you can’t because now you have to agree with the guy about gun control or he’s going to keep making everybody uncomfortable. Pretty soon you just want to leave. I don’t blame people for wanting to leave.

Robert Gibbs was asked yesterday (I wrote this blog more than a month ago) about why the President would have a private dinner with the President of China knowing the country participated in human rights violations. I thought Gibbs’ response was wise. He said the human rights violations justified the need for a face to face conversation all the more. When you take a “if you don’t agree with me I am going to cause tension” you rarely get anybody to agree with you, you just get a false feeling of moral superiority and greater division. So the question we have to ask ourselves is do I want to make people agree with me or do I want to say my piece and respect their individuality, even if I think they are wrong.

And on a side note, I am wondering whether the church in Europe decreased in size and impact because of loose, liberal theology, or because the church got divided and people got tired of the fighting. You never hear about that loose European theology, but you do hear a lot about bitter fights (historically, to the death) over theological squabbles. I think people just left the dinner party saying to themselves that they’d just rather find community at the pub. If the church dies in America, it wont be because of liberal theology, it will be because people don’t sense Christians actually understand or respect Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It goes without saying, then, that if they will know us by our love, they will also know we are not of God by our inability to acknowledge an individuals sovereignty.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

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  • Beth

    I like the idea of church being a community. We are all invited to the dinner party and bring our own experiences and thoughts especially theologyto the table. It should be a discussion bathed in love not who is right or wrong. God gave each of us free will not just one with the gift of leadership or teaching.

  • THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this. Wow wow wow. This really helps my perspective, Don. My strong desire for change and activism DOES bring a moral superiority that kills relationships and unity. This also could speak to the level of political activism…what is smart activism and what isn’t—why people have no interest in listening to you if you just make a bunch of noise.

  • Matt

    Well-timed repost. I appreciate leaders within the church and faith community who, instead of taking sides and bashing other brothers for some limelight, “speak the truth in love” into otherwise disappointing (and somewhat embarrassing) situations. Mad props for being one of those leaders.

  • Thank you! Yesterday’s uproar over Rob Bell was annoying. Both sides wanted a one-sided conversation, but that’s not a conversation at all; it’s a dictation.
    You’re pretty awesome, Don.

  • Chuck

    I think this is missing the point. If the goal in Christianity was that everyone got along with everyone else (even those who teach things that are against the teachings of Scripture) then most of the New Testament writers are guilty of the very thing that Donald has said here is so wrong. There are harsh words for those who are against the Orthodox teachings of the Scriptures in the New Testament. Talk of turning people over to Satan, hell, judgement, and lots more. Paul will say have nothing to do with people who teach false doctrine and he tells Timothy not to even let them speak. So the answer to the question raised in this blog is a resounding no. The church in Europe did not decline because of a staunch defense of theological truth, it declined because it lost sight of the gospel and the true message of the New Testament. For some reason this kind of talk sounds really good and spiritual but in reality it is poison to the people of God. We are called to defend the truth, and Jesus himself promises that this in itself will bring division. We are to speak truth in love, but love speaks the truth.

    • mike

      Chuck, spot on!

      Paul taught leaders of the local body, “Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed.” Galatians 1: 8-9

      And there is ample guidance in Scripture on the loving, godly, process of how to go to a brother or person who may be doing that.

      But there will be situation (hopefully very, very few) where breaking fellowship is not only necessary but loving.

      • Tim

        Really? I’m so glad you’ve got it all figured out.

  • Alex McNeilly

    “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

    Biblical theology is worth fighting over. Of course, unity is to be prized, but if we aren’t unified about our theology of who Jesus Christ is, and what it means to be a Christian, what’s the point?

    Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians to purge the evil one from among us. After that, he says:

    “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).

    We argue for the purpose of achieving unity, and for weeding out destructive heresies. Otherwise, we are simply “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

    In Christ,

    • Don

      I hear you Alex, but the enemies in scripture are legalist, not liberals. They are people who quote scripture and use fear to intimidate people with laws. read through the gospels again and see if the Christ’s enemies look like liberals or fundamentalists.

      • Alex McNeilly

        The enemies in Scripture are any who oppose God and reject His word, whether they be legalistic, liberal, or apathetic.

        Yes, Jesus spent much of his time opposing Pharisees and legalistic Jews. But how did he do this? Not by turning away from the law and telling them that they were too harsh with their legalism. Just the opposite in fact. Christ applies the law more deeply and more rigorously:

        “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

        I think Christ’s application is much more intimidating than the Pharisees’. Especially when he gets into talking about cutting off our hands, or plucking out our eyes. How radical and legalistic of Jesus to apply the law so fundamentally!

        The truth is, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, as liberal theologians like to think. And he didn’t come to commend us for our righteous living, as legalists like to think. No, he came to fulfill the law. The law still stands so that we see the depth of our sin. Jesus was hard on the legalistic Pharisees because they didn’t take the law seriously enough: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty intimidated by the holiness of God’s law when Christ says this.

        And I think that’s the point, because how do we respond? We turn to Christ for his righteousness, we repent of our sins, and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to live in such a way that is actually pleasing to God.


        • Don

          Where are you getting this? I think you’re defending your own construct and using the Bible to do it. Jesus’ enemies were all fundamentalists. Read through the text again. He shows grace to the wayward, not the back of his hand. That said, Christ will set you free from legalism. You can know Him, too. Nicodemus did.

          • Alex McNeilly

            Where am I getting what? All quotes are taken directly from Scripture. I would appreciate it if you acknowledged Scripture as an authority as well by pointing to specific passages of Scripture in your responses.

            That is one thing that Christians should be unified about – that Scripture is our authority.

            Instead, you just make general claims like “Jesus’ enemies were all fundamentalists.” Really? Was King Herod a fundamentalist?

          • Derek

            Hey Don, bravo for not falling into the trap of quoting 20 scriptures to combat Alex’s 20 scriptures. Every major heresy could quote scripture to defend itself. The only way to combat a heresy is to appeal to the bigger story of scripture. Anyone can cut and paste scriptures and make the Bible say anything.

            Alex: getting into a war where we fling bible verses at each other does not honor the Bible at all. Stripmining scripture to prop up our own “constructs” does not put the Bible in the place of authority – it puts our constructs in the final place of authority, and the Bible is USED to make ourselves feel righter. It’s self-surving. Plus no one wants to slog through a million scripture quotes. Big deal. We’ve all read the Bible. We know those scriptures exist. Anyone can quote scripture to make a point, including Fred Phelps.

            Don is keeping things simple and direct: Jesus reserved his harshest words for people who quoted scripture to make God seem distant and angry while propping up their own self-righteousness.

            Herod wasn’t an enemy of Jesus in any real sense. Jesus flippantly dismissed him as a “fox.” But it was the fundamentalists that he called a brood of vipers.

        • Chuck

          I would be interested to know exactly how Alex misrepresented the Orthodox teaching of the scriptures here. In response to Derek, how did he “stripmine” anything? It seems like Alex has presented a pretty clear representation of the gospel as laid out in the entire Bible, and confessed by the church since the beginning. His take on the issue is absolutely in line with the bigger picture of scripture. And how can it be a problem to use these scriptures to defend truth. If the scriptures are not the center of our thoughts on these things then in reality we have nothing to say but our own opinions and speculations which is dangerous and gives no clear sense of authority or truth other than that of our own understanding. If we are talking about scripture as being authoritative (and I hope we are) over things of doctrine and faith, then we must (like Paul in Ephesians) say that prior to conversion we were all “Children of wrath and enemies of God.” The term enemy is not reserved for vague terms like fundamentalists or liberals but for everyone outside of the grace of God given through faith in Jesus Christ, and this is exactly the point Alex is making here. The major reasons people are leaving the church are not because these things are being taught but because people no longer want to hear what is true, but want everyone to “have a place at the table” where everyones thoughts on anything are treated equally. While we must treat all with love we are commanded to silence those who seek to teach things that are against the teachings of scripture.

  • I think this is a social skills issue also. It is poor social skills to talk only about what you are interested in. It is good social skill to focus on another person.

  • Great thoughts and good questions. But, I also wonder how it is we are to have these discussions in a healthy manner. As the Bell-Piper controversy continues to bubble and spew, the watching world looks in with disgust and rightfully so. Are we now in such a chronically anxious state (to borrow Friedman’s term) that we can no longer have meaningful discussions without reverting to ideological diatribes and name calling? Why is it some people find tough questions so threatening? God isn’t changed by our questions, any more than He is definitively bounded by our formulae and mortal understandings. I for one wish our culture could handle such discussions without reverting them into debates…

  • Interestingly, I stumbled on your blog through a controversy. People are trying to crucify Rob Bell for his new book WHICH HASN’T EVEN BEEN RELEASED yet. The hounds of dogmatism have smelled blood and they are on the hunt. Rob is a pretty cunning hare. I know him personally and have seen him in action under similar plots. He might get out of this thing alive.

    In the meantime the infighting is unending. Blog, Blog, blah, blah. Anyway, your blog was a refreshing dip. Thanks.

    For a more positive take on how the future may unfold consider Phyllis Tickle’s thoughtful book entitled The Great Emergence. She contends that the more dogmatic viewpoints will find themselves more entrenched, but on the fringes, while the gathering center will gain momentum and become the more substantial force in the next era.

    Here’s to the center set and more enjoyable dinner parties.

  • Clara

    It seems to me that — in the analogy of Obama and the President of China — China better represents the fundamentalists who are arguing their faith. If they are the ones in the wrong (if we assume these are cases in which they are crossing the line and causing disunity where it need not be) then the people who “got tired of all the jabbing” are the ones who need to maturely decide to sit down and sit face to face with them, rather than choosing to stay aloof because they want to prove that they are morally superior.

    It *is* possible to have liberal theology and be proud… especially in the current cultural climate.

    “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.”

    — This has to go both ways.

    [And don’t get me wrong, I think the church is very broken, and I find Sunday morning services to be, largely, failing… But we have to trust that God ha a plan in making all of us, as diverse as we are, His body. If He has a heart for unity, then meeting together regularly — regardless of whether we like the format or the preaching (maybe even *especially* if we don’t) — is a good place to start.]

    • Josh

      Yeah. I personally believe that lack of commitment to the body will kill the church long before theological arguments will. It doesn’t look like the church is “working,” but we can’t give up on the body that Christ has called us to be. He likes to work in surprising, upside-down ways.

      What if more people started treating commitment to a church body like a marriage covenant?

  • Dan

    Perhaps the word that best fits this is “relevance”. Theological arguments are fine to waste time but are hardly relevant to living a christian life. I know in my own wandering relevance was what I was looking for, much more than a ‘correct’ set of theological thought. If our doctrine was relevant there would be fewer discussions or arguments.

  • Feeling so thankful after reading this that Jesus loves us all. So much anger and resentment over so many things by so many people. Can we just be humbled by His love and emulate Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit?

  • Nothing will kill the Church. Liberals, fundamentalists, right, left or any other side.

    However along the way many will leave the Way and they will leave it for many different reasons, using many different excuses and pointing many fingers. Simply put (although it is anything but simple) – it is not easy to follow Christ.

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  • Scott

    Intellectualism, whether conservative or liberal, is what is killing the “church”. Sophistication instead of simplicity is killing the “church”. Carnality or the “love of the world” instead of our being strangers to this world and it’s systems because of our genuine spirituality and also by our ridiculous inconceivable priorities. We do not know whom Holy Spirit is evidenced by our lack of evidence/”fruit” of Holy Spirit.

    “Infighting” is symptomatic of the lack of the fruit of the Spirit- “infighting” is the fruit of the flesh. Opposing interpretations of Scripture, when there is but one intended and correct interpretation of Scripture, is a fruit of the flesh, and that when sought, Holy Spirit is more than capable of teaching; or do we not believe this anymore?

    Apparently it takes discernment, which is a spiritual gift, to see past the symptoms to the source, and of course, spiritual gifts only come from being in the presence of God. We seeing a pattern yet?

    After touring the US with an Indian pastor, Wolfgang Simson was amazed at how much the American “church” could do without Holy Spirit.

  • Dave

    The phrase Kristen used describes how I feel very well. Caught in a “chronically anxious state”. I never feel completely safe at church. If I’m unsure of something that someone else is sure of I worry that I will be attacked or belittled if I just ask questions. In the same vein, if I actually disagree with someone then that very worry turns into anxiety. I have this dream that my church would be there for me no matter what, but I really don’t think they would be. That seems to be Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17. But rather I feel that they’d be pretty quick to consign me to hell if I didn’t toe the theological line. I’m 51. I’ve been at this church thing since birth. I have questions I want to discuss, not get answered with dogma. I don’t know how much longer I can take living with the insecurity.

  • Chris

    Was it in one of Don’s books where it’s said – as Christians we should at least show the world how to disagree well…

    There’s a timely series going on at NPR’s ‘Being’ radio program about civil conversations.
    It wades deep into some serious topics without turning rude or dismissive. You may not agree with their positions, but it’s refreshing to hear ‘arguments’ made with respect for the ‘other’.

  • Larry Geiger

    The Church cannot be killed by infighting. Nothing can, or will prevail against Her. The Church is not about us. It’s about Him.

  • Keith

    Why does this have to be a mutually exclusive argument? It seems obvious to me that both liberalism and infighting have played a huge role in the demise of the church. Liberalism creates infighting by pinning groups and individuals against each other within the church. Infighting creates liberalism when those groups go elsewhere to practice something different than a previous church. Clear, concise points make for a better book because they give us something to emulate, but I think this is a situation where we are all loosers. Both issues need to be addressed, but we are currently focused on proving that the other side is wrong. How about admitting we are both wrong and working through it together.