Some of the most stressful times of my pastorate were in the first two years when I attended my first meetings of presbytery. It just so happened that I was licensed and ordained during one of the most contentious periods of debate in my presbytery. I can remember sitting in the pew listening to the debate rage around me after I had been newly licensed to preach. Oddly enough, the heated debate didn’t deter me from pursuing ordination—maybe I was like a deer in the headlights? Maybe I should have run far, far away? But one of the things that amazed me about the debate was not how intensely it was fought, but how it would be punctuated by laughter. Some of the participants would do their best to bring levity to the debate to relieve some of the tension. But even more amazing than the laughter was the degree of camaraderie shared by a number of the presbyters after the debate.
Yes, the polar extremes of the debate steered clear from one another—that was to be expected. They were not rude to one another, but they did keep their distance. It was, however, the soft middle that was quite cordial. There were people on opposite sides of the issue who were genuinely convinced of one course of action but stood in conflict with other members of presbytery who were equally convinced of another course of action. I think many of these men were humble, could share their views, vote, even lose the debate, and still have good fellowship with the men who opposed them. To be honest, this turn of events initially baffled me. How could people, even the best of friends, stand on opposite sides of a heated debate and still remain friends?
The first answer to this question is humility. All too often we have the tendency to think we have an airtight solution to a problem. We know exactly and precisely how to fix something. But what do you do when someone else thinks that they have the perfect solution but it happens to be the exact opposite of your proposal? This is where humility comes in—I have to be prepared for the fact that I may be wrong or that my idea, however highly I might esteem it, might not be the best solution to a problem. Only a humble person can allow room for other ideas and admit that someone else’s idea is better.
The second answer to the question is recognizing that everyone in the room wants the same goal—to glorify God and edify the church. The all-too real temptation is to think that the person on the other side of the debate is your enemy rather than your brother in Christ. Even worse, our tendency is to think, “My enemy is Christ’s enemy.” But the reality is, just because a person disagrees with you doesn’t automatically mean he disagrees with Christ. We have to have assume the best of people and give them the benefit of the doubt until they clearly prove otherwise.
What this means is that in church life, whether at church business meetings or presbytery (or classis), we should be prepared to live with disagreements. Mind you, I don’t have blatant violations of Scripture or confession in view. I am addressing matters of disagreement where the truth may be difficult to discern. Do you, for example, ordain a man who was unbiblically divorced early in his Christian life who then remarried and for the last twenty years has been faithful to his second wife? A question like this can often create a very long and difficult debate where best friends stand on opposite sides of the issue.
When the matter is decided and the votes are cast, one side will lose and the other will win. How you handle disagreement after the debate is just as important, if not more, than the actual debate itself. Will you have the integrity to fellowship with your brothers after a difficult debate? Will you continue to hold your brothers in high regard? Will you have the humility to admit that you could be wrong? Manifesting Christian character during times of pleasant accord is easy—it’s entirely another matter when you’re in the midst of heated debate. Pray that Christ would enable you to manifest his character both during and after the disagreement.