Controversy is more than a misunderstanding between people. It erupts when two parties are staunchly at odds. While some truth may be debated, the discord that swells often overtakes the truth. Unhealthy craving (1 Timothy 6:4) kicks in when people become more passionate about being right than being respectful and more interested in winning than loving. As a result, they justify hateful speech and unkind action.
Spiritual deceit is behind a lot of controversy. Our true foe is not an opposing political party nor is it one another. Our enemy is Satan. Our family is the church. We battle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. While not exhaustive, here are a few principles to keep in mind in the midst of controversy:
We can become so embroiled in the details of a controversy that we lose sight of the broader spiritual war. When I was unjustly attacked by an elder, it was easy to get bogged down in his accusations. Am I really unfit for ministry? Do I deserve his anger? While self-reflection is important, the enemy prefers to trap us here. It took some time for me to realize that our conflict wasn’t based on a misunderstanding but a spiritually provoked controversy. Then, I began to really pray. As we prayed, the fog began to lift. People swept away by the elder’s deceit began to see what was happening. After seeing the controversy not as a personality conflict but a spiritual provocation, a staff member confided, “When I looked at him I saw darkness, but when I looked at you I saw light.” When controversy erupts, reach for your spiritual armor and pray without ceasing. Pray against the enemy and for your opponents. Pray for a tender heart and a strong spirit. Pray for humility and grace to endure. Pray for the glory of God.
As a young leader, I had a hard time receiving any kind of critique. I felt that I had the theological answers, and it was everybody else’s job to agree. After all, I was trying to be faithful to Scripture (though my reading was selective!). As a result, I misinterpreted questions as lack of support. I did not listen well. Instead, when I sensed that a staff member was struggling to grasp our vision, I interrupted to steer them in the right direction. Eventually frustration boiled over during a team exercise. A staff member shared that when I cut him off, he felt disrespected. I had no idea. Seeing the answer more clearly, I thought I was doing him a favor by efficiently guiding him to the right conclusion. He explained that allowing him to process and ask questions enabled him to truly own a conclusion, instead of having it handed to him. A light bulb went on. I apologized and made a conscious effort not to interrupt my staff.
Sometimes we have to walk with people all the way around the barn to get to the front door. Otherwise, they might not actually go in. They need space to come to some conclusions. Now, sometimes people just need to do their job; not everything is up for debate, but if we don’t listen well, people may nod their head in agreement while internalizing frustration. A good leader listens to others even if it feels inefficient, because love is inefficient. Jesus could have snapped his fingers and been done with creation, redemption, history—the whole thing—but instead he threw efficiency to the wind and wastefully entered our mess to bring about new creation. Listen well and you will love well.
Affirm What’s Right
As we listen to others, it is important to take note of the things that are correct. Conflict is a two-way street designed for mutual change. God wants to transform us into the image of his Son in the thick of controversy. When we hear things that are true and good, we should affirm them. If we hear something that convicts us, we should apologize and repent. If we need time to consider something further, we should voice that need, making sure to follow up after we have had time to think and pray. Honor what is good and right, regardless of the source. Grant dignity to those who oppose you.
Filter through the Spirit
Controversy easily overtakes those who listen defensively. The defensive person listens long enough to gather ammunition to make their case. Their aim is to be proven right. We can also fuel controversy by listening compliantly. The compliant person listens without speaking the truth. Their aim is to be accepted, even if it requires a white lie or a snub of the Spirit. Instead of being defensive or compliant, filter everything through the Holy Spirit. The godly leader practices double-listening: listening to the person and to the Spirit. As you listen, filter what is said through Scripture, noting any incongruence. This is where the Spirit speaks most clearly. As you weigh areas of concern, ask the Spirit for discernment on what to address. Remember to be patient with evil and to correct your opponents with gentleness. When you need to correct, try to avoid correcting based on your general spiritual opinion. Instead, appeal to your shared authority in Scripture. Filter what is said through the Spirit.
Know What You’re Walking Into
I have walked into too many meetings that turned out to be an ambush. If a critical person asks for a meeting, don’t be afraid to ask them what they want to meet about. This enables us to think and pray over a topic instead of walking into a meeting as if blindfolded. It is also wise to ask a fellow leader or pastor to join you. This increases prayer and includes a witness should anything go sideways. Once you meet in person, ask the individual what they want out of the meeting. This gets the real agenda on the table and helps avoid word-fighting.
It’s also wise to invite people to pray at the outset of a controversial meeting to ask God for mutual humility, patience, wisdom, and grace. If they refuse or resist prayer, it can be a sign they aren’t ready to resolve conflict. So, pray at the beginning, throughout, and at the end of the meeting: Lord, help us!
Stay Close to Jesus
It is so important to stay close to Jesus during controversy. When we are close to him, we enjoy his sympathetic heart for sufferers. He is close to the downcast and the broken- hearted. Intimacy with Christ also keeps us humble and open to the transformative work God wants to do in us. When we are close to Jesus, his words are louder than our critics’ words. We are reminded that we are his disciple before we are a leader; we are the Father’s beloved son or daughter prior to being a pastor. This frees us to heed fair critiques without being devastated, and to dismiss unjust charges without being embittered.