Children and Church Conflict

by Barbara Cross

It was one of those nasty church splits that caused grief, pain, anger and bitterness to the members of a small Bible-believing church. The congregation was torn down the middle as they sided for or against the minister and his actions. We were very close to one family who were members of that warring church. We, as a young couple, saw this terrible conflict destroy our friends' relationships with fellow Christians, dominate their thinking and embitter their spirits. Whenever we spent time with them, the details of the continuing church battle were the main topic of conversation. Being on one side of the division, there were sharp words spoken against those on the opposite side. Church problems and criticisms were freely aired in front of the family's children. They daily heard the ongoing details of the church crisis and the faults of the Christians involved in the controversy.

In time, the problems were somewhat resolved. A different minister was called. New leadership was chosen. Our friends were happy with the outcome, but the results of that period of church conflict began to show up very clearly in the lives of their children. They started to rebel at going to church. Disparaging remarks were made about members of the congregation. Now, as adults, they live totally separated from spiritual things and look with disdain on the church and Christianity. In contrast to the older children who were involved in the crisis, the children of that family who were too young to understand what was happening during that troubled time have gone on to follow the Lord and be part of His church.

After observing the effect that this conflict had in the lives of these older children, we made a decision that we would have to be very careful as to how we would deal with our own children, if we should go through times of disagreement or conflict with other Christians.

It is a regrettable fact of life that due to the remaining sin in all of us, divisions and difficulties between Christian believers will come into our personal lives and church life. One of the great mistakes that our friends made, and that many Christian parents make, is discussing these problems before the children. It is often unnecessary, and almost certain to bring spiritual harm to them. Sometimes this is done in small ways; for example, when critical remarks are made before the children about the Sunday morning sermon or other aspects of the church services as families travel home from church. This discussion might even turn, as one man described it, into having "roast preacher" for Sunday dinner! Naturally, there are going to be things that we would prefer to do differently, and even some matters with which we strongly disagree, but we must be careful about voicing these criticisms in the presence of young children.

There are reasons why it is important to be careful about what we say. The first is that young children are unable to separate the one area or person with which we disagree from the church life as a whole. To criticise the preaching of the pastor, the leadership of the elders, the teaching of a Sunday School teacher may give a message to the child that the church, as a whole, is a flawed and possibly that it is a worthless institution. Children tend to see a criticism of a part as a reason for rejection of the whole.

Another reason for caution in what we say before them is that children are not as able, as a mature adult should be, to disagree with a fellow Christian and yet, at the same time, continue to see him or her as a valuable Christian brother or sister. To disagree in part, in a child's mind, can be seen to disapprove of or to reject the other person completely.

Therefore, with small children it is best to be very careful about expressing our differences with other believers either by our words or our actions. Church problems or differences about which we need to speak should be done in a private situation removed from their hearing.

While we made it our rule not to discuss church difficulties in the hearing of our children, we often found that others were careless in front of them. People would come to our home and would blurt out personal problems about themselves, their family or the church in front of our children. We simply made it a rule, where necessary, to say politely, "Would you mind if we discussed this privately?" We also taught our children that if people began to speak of private matters and they were asked to leave the room and go somewhere else to play, they were not to question why they must leave, nor were they to ask questions about private conversations.

There are times that, though one may be careful about what is said, and one tries to keep others from speaking unwisely, the children will hear things said anyway. It is important that they be taught from a very young age that such remarks or conversations are not to be repeated to others. If they are unsure about what is to be kept secret, they should be instructed to check with their parents.

With older children it is not always possible to protect them from knowing problems or differences that are happening. How do we deal with that? Again, we need to be cautious about making unnecessary critical remarks in front of them. However, there are times that details have to be told and problems discussed. In doing this we must be very careful how we handle this situation so as not to destroy their love of fellow Christians and regard for the Church of Jesus Christ.

We went through such an occasion in our lives. A big difference developed between us and another church leader. Though we tried to resolve this problem in a scriptural manner, the man was unwilling to meet with us and to seek reconciliation. It was a painful and very sad time for us and it led to a situation where we felt we could no longer be in a working relationship with this Christian brother. Our children were older at the time and could not help knowing what was happening as the problem was forcing us to make changes that affected our whole family.

As we talked with our children we began first by affirming that while we had a problem in our relationship with this man, we did not deny that he was a real Christian brother. It was important for them to see that we did not write him off as a genuine believer.

The second thing we explained was that, while we could not agree with his words and actions, we were trying to give him the benefit of the doubt as to the cause of his actions. It was important to teach them that only God can know the motives of the heart.

The third way we dealt with the problem was by admitting to them that we were not without sin in our own words and attitudes. It was especially humbling for me to have to say to my own daughters that I was angry and full of bitterness over the situation. I told them, however, that I was seeking God's forgiveness and help for my attitude and I asked them to pray for me as I struggled with my own sinful heart. I knew I must show them, that even though a Christian, I still had to work through the effects of remaining sin in my life, just as they also had to do.

Last of all, we made sure that our children saw us continuing to make efforts to restore that broken relationship. It was necessary for them to know that we did not desire to have our fellowship with a Christian brother shattered. We continued to work toward repairing that relationship, and we and our children rejoiced when God granted us the joy of reconciliation.

As older children, with more Christian training and understanding than they would have had at a younger age, we felt that they were able to understand that Christians are not perfect and do not always get along in this life. We gave them Bible illustrations where godly men have disagreed such as Paul and Barnabas. They prayed with us as we sought the Lord's help in the situation and they were able to see that true Christians are not hypocrites. They also saw that true Christianity, though often a struggle, is not a sham.

None of us can call our children to saving faith. That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we bear great responsibility to do nothing that will hinder them in coming to Christ as their Saviour. We are responsible for living lives before them that will make true Christianity something that, with the work of the Holy Spirit, they will desire to follow.

We must be careful in all ways of living the Christian life before our family, but particularly we must practice great care in this area. If we now face, or in the future experience, times of disagreement and division through church conflict, we must not give our children an excuse to turn away from the Lord and His church. It is important that we, who desire the best for them spiritually, do nothing to destroy their confidence in God's church or God's people through our careless talk and attitudes.

Copyright © Family Matters 1998