How Should Pastors Respond to Criticisms and Division?

How Should Pastors Respond to Criticisms and Division?

It’s exciting to be part of a team. Even when the team isn’t perfect. Even when there are personality clashes. Yes, even when there have been significant losses. 

How Should Pastors Respond to Criticisms and Division?

Many pastors right now may feel like they’re coaching a team that has been demoralized by injuries and infighting. If that’s you, if you’ve been shepherding a church through these tumultuous times, I hope you and your congregation can be reinvigorated by the reminder that you are part of a worldwide team that is Christ’s church. And we’re called to a mission that is bigger than any one of us, and that should unite us all.

Importance of Unity

Even when teammates aren’t together in one location, there’s still a camaraderie and connection that exists among every member of the team. I played college football at a Christian liberal arts school outside of Chicago. My teammates were from all over the country. In the summer months we were scattered geographically, but we were all on the same training regimen. Having the same goals in mind, we were united.

But there’s a far deeper bond among believers, since we’re in partnership for a far greater cause.  We’re partnered together for the sake of the gospel. Even when we’re tempted to feel demoralized, we need to keep our eyes on the goal. To help us do that, we can gain some insights from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Even as he writes from jail, Paul is filled with gratitude and joy because of the gospel partnership he shares with this church.

Stay Focused on the Mission

The apostle Paul could have been paralyzed by the setbacks in his ministry, including his imprisonment (Philippians 1:12–14) and the jealous rivals attacking his reputation (Philippians 1:15-17).  Amazingly, Paul persevered in his gospel partnerships—and he did it with joy! 

Paul begins this letter by celebrating the gospel partnership he shares with the church in Philippi:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3–5) 

Fellow pastors, here’s an inspiring example for us to emulate. It can provide fresh wind for our sails and a compelling vision to set before the church. Even in the midst of various hurts and hardships, we can fix our eyes on the glory of God and the mission to which he has called us.  

We have the joyful privilege of partnering with other believers in the gospel, which is the best news in all the world! We get to link arms with brothers and sisters in Christ, in our own congregation and among all nations.

As Christians, we get to declare Jesus to unbelievers and help proclaim the gospel to unreached people groups, and God has promised that this mission will succeed! So in the midst of possibly discouraging circumstances in your church, don’t forget to keep pointing to the mission. 

Keep Perspective in the Face of Criticism

Jail wasn’t the only potential discouragement in Paul’s life. He also had guys who were intentionally trying to malign his reputation and usurp his authority. Their preaching was motivated by “envy and rivalry” (Philippians 1:15–17).

Apparently, these jealous rivals wanted to be in the place of Paul—not in jail, but having a place of prominence among the churches. They were trying to put Paul down while elevating themselves. 

Maybe you’ve been criticized by members of your church. If so, take your cue from Paul, who amazingly peered through these petty rivalries and was able to say, “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). 

That’s a remarkably gospel-centered perspective to maintain in the face of criticism.  Let’s pray for that same perspective in our own minds and hearts. 

Rejoice Despite Division

In addition to the difficulties Paul was facing personally, there was the painful reality of conflict and division in the Philippian church. This was a church Paul had partnered with long-term (1:5), having witnessed some of the amazing conversions of its earliest members (Acts 16). But years later, there was an unresolved disagreement between two members of the church named Euodia and Syntyche. 

It’s instructive to see how Paul addresses the disagreement between these two women, one that may have sent ripple effects through the rest of the congregation.

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown … I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. … help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel … Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:1–4) 

Isn’t it interesting that Paul’s address to these two women is sandwiched between statements of affirmation and joy! Even as he’s pleading with these sisters in Christ, he’s doing so with reminders that they are co-laborers in the gospel. 

Brothers, let’s remind ourselves and our congregations of the great team we have the privilege of serving on. Our teammates in the gospel are here in our local congregation as well as in countries around the world. We have a mission worthy of our complete devotion. It’s bigger than our personal preferences and more valuable than our reputations. Let us, then, follow the example of humility set by Jesus, who took on flesh and died for us (2:1–11), for he will come again in glory (3:20–21).  

This is a mission that will succeed in spite of our petty divisions. 

Ben Reaoch (@BenReaoch) is the pastor of Three Rivers Grace Church in Pittsburgh and the author of Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate (P&R, 2012).

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