What to do about provocateurs and contrarians in church

Christopher Ash | January 30th 2019

“I love arguments, especially theological arguments.” An applicant to the Cornhill Training Course said that to me some years ago, when I was Director. He did not get a place. Every pastor knows the kind, the man or woman who is always spoiling for a fight, the one you can count on to interrupt or hijack the church meeting with some thoroughly unhelpful comment, the church member you can rely on to contradict or oppose just about anything the pastor or the elders propose (sometimes even if they agree with it in their heart of hearts). Pastors can swap stories with other pastors about such people. But swapping stories doesn’t get you very far. These people are still there causing trouble. So the question I want to open up is this: given that such people are members of many churches, what is a pastor supposed to do about them?

I want to suggest three principles and briefly explore what they might mean in practice.

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Teach the whole church how to speak well and why

There is plenty in Proverbs about the power of the tongue to heal or to harm. We are to speak what builds others up in their faith and godliness, something that will actively benefit those who listen (e.g. Ephesians 4:29). Teach this to the whole church. And encourage (most of) the church that this is indeed the kind of people they are. Give some bad and good examples and say (if you can), “I thank God that in this fellowship we build up one another like (the good examples). It is such a joy to belong to a church in which so much edifying speaking goes on day by day.” Perhaps include a good example from recent church life, if appropriate.

This promotes a sense that this is indeed the way that “we” do behave. I may be conscious that I have not always spoken like this, but I listen to my pastor say this and I want to be like this. You don’t need to mention, or even hint, at the opposite. People will join the dots. The next time a trouble-maker weighs in with a destructive word, it will be like a horrible musical discord cutting across a beautiful sonata. In speaking like this, they proclaim that they are precisely the kind of person who does not really belong in the fellowship! I don’t want to listen to them; I don’t want to be like them.

Beware democracy! Let the leaders lead

Church members are to submit to their leaders, so long as the leaders are godly (Hebrews 13:7,17). Timothy in Ephesus is faced with a false-teaching that is great fun (it spreads like gangrene), fascinating (lots of interestings speculation and discussion), and yet destructive of godly living and real faith. Trouble-makers abound. Timothy is told both gently to instruct these people, praying that God will give them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25,26) and to have nothing to do with them (2 Timothy 3:5). That’s not so easy. But precisely in its paradox, it helps the pastor or elder.

On the one hand, I want to try the gentle teaching approach, hoping they will change. And they may. People do change. But, at the same time, if they will not change, they must be silenced (cf. Titus 1:11). The church is not a free-for-all in which everybody has a right to speak; it is the household of God in which leaders are to lead. Of course, churches are not dictatorships, and leaders need to listen. If as a pastor you know you tend towards dominating, then make sure there are people in your church who know they have your permission to say 'no' to you. But equally, churches are not democracies So don’t be fooled into some strange idea that democracy is a bible value in church; let the leaders lead! And don’t be afraid to shut people up in a meeting; you may feel nervous doing it, and you must pray to do it with a courteous firmness, but there will be many silently thanking God for your courage.

Seek to understand and speak to the heart

A pastor is a physician of the soul. What is going on in the heart of this difficult person? It won’t excuse their destructive speaking; but it may help to explain just how sin has got this particular bridgehead in their life. Not infrequently, such people are, as we say, “somewhere on the spectrum”, perhaps tending towards Aspergers Syndrome or a form of Autism; they may not quite realise the effect of their words. I feel I am rather like this myself, so perhaps I may be permitted to say this. They, like me, may need a friend to get alongside them to show them the damage their words are causing.

Or perhaps it is an insecurity; maybe he or she has recently retired and is desperately missing being ‘somebody’ in their former workplace; now church becomes the locus in which they hope to become again a person who really counts. If so, a gentle time of listening and then bible teaching about greatness coming through service may be appropriate.

It may be that none of these principles “solves” the problem. Indeed, I wonder if sometimes the awkward customer may be God’s “thorn in the flesh” to make us depend the more deeply upon the grace of the Lord Jesus. In which case, so be it. There is grace in the trials as well as grace in the solution!

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Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash has been a pastor, and is now an author and writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He was Director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course from 2004-2015. He is married to Carolyn and they have four children and five grandchildren.

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