Nicene Church Planting (Part 4): On Apostates and the People You Want To Punch

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Canon XI of the Council of Nicaea addressed those in the early church who turned away from the faith without having faced any sort of significant persecution or suffering. These were not people who had been tortured or threatened with death or had their property confiscated or anything. They had simply wimped out in the face of cultural pressure to revert to paganism.

The council declared in no uncertain terms that what these folks had done was wrong and that they did not deserve any sort of forgiveness or restoration to the church but that it should be offered to them anyway. The decision was not to develop a system through which they could make full restitution but to extend grace to them.

That said, they put together a very lengthy process of restoration. While the details would take too long to cover, in the end it would be 12 years before an apostate reached full restoration to the church. That’s a pretty serious probationary period.

If you haven’t planted a church yet, let me give you a super depressing heads up. There will be people who hurt you. Church planting hurts.

It’s not completely different from the interpersonal struggles that every other pastor faces but church planters care so deeply for the churches they plant and are so emotionally invested in them that they become very sensitive about them and take people’s responses to the church very personally. A slight against the church feels like a slight against you. When someone speaks or acts negatively toward the church or the location or some program or lackthereof, or even the other people in the congregation it can often feel like an assault against you. This kind of close emotional association between you and the church is unhealthy but that’s a blog post for another day.

The fact is, there will be people who disappoint you, fail you, and let you down. Sometimes that will be just them shirking responsibility or being unreliable. Other times it may be malicious and the result of “sin rightly so called.” I’m not for a minute suggesting that someone letting you down or hurting you is on the same level as the sin of apostasy but there are clear parallels in terms of how to respond in these situations.

So what do you do with those people? You can condemn them and kick them out, but what about grace and second chances and making allowance for each other’s faults? You can ignore the offence, suck it up, be the bigger woman or man but what about wisdom and standards and trust and relational health and helping them to mature as followers of Jesus?

I think the Fathers at Nicaea would give us the following advice:

Call it what it is.

We don’t do each other favors when we soften and excuse harmful behavior in each other. If someone shirked their agreed-to responsibility and left everyone else scrambling to cover for them, lowered the quality of the ministry, and ultimately were unfaithful to a commitment they made to their sisters and brothers, then it’s not “no problem” and it’s not “stuff happens.” It’s “Hey man, you really dropped the ball here and owe the team an apology.” I’m not talking about nitpicking little one-off lapses caused by uncontrollable circumstances. I’m talking about patterns of behavior that consistently create problems or specific instances that clearly represent harmful choices.

Call them on it. Let them know it’s not ok. Be specific. Help them see why. It will be good for them, it will be great for team morale, and it will help you as their shepherd to grow relationally and set a higher standard.

Offer grace freely.

Somehow we have developed the idea that calling something an offence and forgiving it are mutually exclusive actions. On the contrary! You can’t have one without the other. You can’t forgive something that was “no problem.” You can’t extend grace where there has been no offence. So once you have called out the wrong and, perhaps, sinful action, be quick to extend grace. Figure out a way to articulate grace with your words and just as importantly figure out how to have that forgiveness in your heart. Model grace and forgiveness in your leadership. Let go of the right of retribution. Don’t rehash your disappointment. Go grab the notes from your last sermon on forgiveness, preach it to yourself, then apply it to this situation.

Rebuild trust slowly.

If you rob my house I will forgive you, but I’ll probably ask for my keys back, too. Forgiveness releases past offences and is based on grace. Trust predicts future behaviour and is based on experience. If I share confidential information with you as a leader and you go blabbing it to everyone, then I will not seek to punish you for that offence but I also won’t share confidential information with you again, at least until you have established a track record of being able to be discreet.

If someone breaks trust then, like the early church leaders, give them a clear opportunity to rebuild that trust, even urge them to do so, but don’t blindly assume they will never do whatever it was again. It took years for the full restitution of apostates. It will take time to rebuild trust, too. In my experience those who are unwilling to undergo a process of rebuilding trust are those who either don’t think what they did was actually wrong or just have no actual intention of changing and know they will never earn that trust so they will try to guilt you into trusting them again immediately.

I wish I could give you a 5 step, guaranteed process for rebuilding that trust, but rebuilding trust is more of a shepherding task than a leadership process. Trust has to be rebuilt slowly, intentionally, and relationally.

So what have you found helpful in keeping a healthy emotional separation between you and the church? What have been some helpful approaches for you in dealing with people who have disappointed you and in helping those people to rebuild trust once it has been broken?

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