What should you do if you disagree with something your pastor has said about the Bible from the pulpit?
I'm not talking about disagreements about how your pastors dresses, or what Bible version he uses, or what church policies or ministry initiatives he is advocating, or the financial decisions the church Board has handed down. What we are talking about here is when you find yourself disagreeing with how your pastor interpreted a verse or portion of God's Word. What do you do in that situation?
It is true that some churches are very unhealthy and no disagreement is ever allowed. Even worse, in some dysfunctional congregations even minor disagreement is met with rebuke and even church discipline. Yet I would suspect such extreme reactions are not the norm.
In our church, we have evening small groups where the congregation splits up into the homes of a dozen or so of our members. These are wonderful times of worship, prayer, and fellowship. They also serve as an opportunity to dig deeper into the passage of Scripture the pastor preached on during the morning service. We actively encourage people to talk about the sermon, even disagree if they feel the need to.
Why would we encourage disagreement?
Well I'm not sure we actually encourage people to disagree, per se, but we do encourage our people to make the BIBLE the ultimate standard for the truth, not the pastor's sermon. In fact, if you join one of our small groups you will notice that very few of our study questions have anything to do with my sermons. Nearly all of them are asking questions about the Bible passage that the sermon was based on, not the sermon itself. The goal is to better understand Scripture, not to better understand Josh.
Below are some things to remember if you find yourself in disagreement with your pastor. Near the end, I've also include what you should do if you feel the need to discuss your disagreement with him.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. Don't get angry.
The Bible tells us that "fools vent their anger" (Proverbs 29:11) and not to be "quickly provoked in your spirit" (Ecclesiastes 7:9). It also tells us to be "slow to become angry because anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:19-20). Anger has all kinds of negative effects on us:
- It clouds our perspectives, leading us to thinking foolishly and making unwise decisions (Proverbs 14:29).
- It never brings peace, but always stirs up dissension (Proverbs 15:1, 18)
- It makes you incapable of listening and understanding (James 1:19)
- It demonstrates that your heart is being controlled by evil desires instead of godly ones (James 4:1-2).
The Bible is so serious about this that it commands all believers to rid themselves of anger (Colossians 3:8) and Jesus clearly tells us that "anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Matthew 5:22). If you are angry with your pastor, Bible interpretation is the least of your problems because you are not even walking in obedience to these fundamental Scriptures.
2. Remember that only God is perfect.
According to an old saying, the Bible is shallow enough for a child to play in and deep enough for an elephant to swim. This means that even though the basic message of the Bible is fairly simple and straightforward, there is a remarkable depth to it, so much so that Paul marveled at "the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments" (Romans 11:33). Ecclesiastes 8:17 tells us that "no one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it." If Paul and Solomon felt much of God's truth was above their comprehension, do you really still expect your pastor to have figured out the correct interpretation of every single passage in the Bible? Your pastor is a human being. He cannot possible understand everything about the Bible with 100% accuracy. If that is your standard for a pastor, you are in for a lifetime of disappointment, and I pity the pastor who got stuck with you. The fact is your pastor will misunderstand things in the Bible. He will change his mind, perhaps several times, on interpretations of particular passages. He will make mistakes and errors.
3. Consider the possibility that you could be in error.
OK. So you are clearly convinced that your pastor isn't perfect and makes mistakes interpreting the Bible. Now, have you applied that truth to yourself? When you approach your pastor, be sure to bring an extra dose of humility. After all, you're also human. You're also prone to error. And, just like your pastor, you're also not Jesus.
Philippians 2:3 tells us to "do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." James 4:6 says that "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble". Paul pleaded with the Roman believers "not to think more highly of yourselves than you ought" (Romans 12:3).
4. It's OK to disagree, but it is a sin to grumble.
You are allowed (at least in a healthy church) to disagree with your pastor. Disagreement doesn't bother me in the least. For example, in my small group one of the members recently said, "Pastor Josh, I have to disagree with something you said in this mornings sermon. I take the passage in a completely different way." He went on to explain his view. The pastor isn't a king or dictator. He's not an apostle whose sermons are infallible. He certainly isn't the Holy Spirit. Feel free to disagree.
But your pastor is your brother in Christ who deserves your love and respect. Over the years I've encountered some believers who seem incapable of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Everything seemed to be going well with these believers until the first time they disagreed with something I said. No matter how minor it was, my entire godliness and faithfulness was called into question over a minor interpretive matter. These are the individuals Paul is speaking about when he mentioned those who "argue over words". He goes on to say that their quarreling "is of no value and it only ruins those who listen" (2 Timothy 2:14). Elsewhere he says such people "have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words, which result in envy, strife, malicious talk, and evil suspicions" (1 Timothy 6:4). No wonder Paul told Timothy to "have nothing to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they only produce quarrels." Being argumentative, or casting suspicion upon your pastor to others simply because he holds to a differing interpretation is sinful and you need to repent.
5. Major on the majors, minor on the minors
Of course, if the pastor is teaching something that strikes against the heart of the Christian faith, then a serious response is necessary. A dear friend of mine had been attending a church for many decades when they called a new pastor. He was young, fresh, and a gifted communicator. You can imagine my friend's shock when this pastor began to advocate homosexuality within his sermons, even openly saying that the apostle Paul had been wrong on this topic. That is no minor interpretive difference, as he was denying the Bible's infallibility and promoting sexual immorality. Such a pastor must be removed, or in the event that is impossible, the congregant needs to remove himself from such ungodly teaching.
But there are a whole list of minor issues that needlessly become controversies in the church:
- Does the mention of "pastor" and "teacher" in Ephesians 4:11 refer to two gifts/offices (pastor and teacher) or one gift/office (pastor/teacher)?
- Is Romans 7 talking about Paul's life before or after his conversion?
- Will there be a rapture and when will it occur?
- Are the "sons of God" in Genesis 6:1-4 fallen angels or men from the line of Seth?
- Is hospitality a spiritual gift or a command for all believers? Or both?
- Should a church have a plurality of elders or just a single elder (Senior Pastor) and a deacon board?
- Are spiritual gifts given at the moment of our natural birth or at our spiritual birth?
- Was Phoebe a deacon?
- Does divorce disqualify someone from the eldership?
- Does the gift of tongues continue today?
- Should the congregation stand when someone reads Scripture (Nehemiah 8:5) or is it acceptable to remain seated (Jeremiah 36:14-15)?
- Is tithing (10% of income) still mandated for the church or has it been done away with in Jesus?
If we put our heads together we could probably come up with several hundred more things to put on that list. This doesn't mean that those issues are pointless to discuss or preach on. Nor does it mean that we cannot come to any definitive conclusions on those subjects. It just means that mature, Jesus-loving believers can have different perspectives on those issue and still get along very nicely with a local church.
Learn the ability to distinguish between majors and minors, lest you stumble into one of the "foolish controversies" that Paul warned Titus about (Titus 3:9).
HOW TO APPROACH YOUR PASTOR WITH A DISAGREEMENT
1. Be willing to learn.
Your pastor most likely has spent years in deep, reflective study of the Word. He has also had the opportunity to spend many hours in study of the particular passage you will be discussing. Often this involves study in the Bible's original languages as well as being familiar with how other commentators, scholars, and pastors have interpreted this passage. This doesn't mean your pastor is right, but it does mean he has earned the right for you to at least give him a fair hearing.
2. Be willing to speak
This can be intimidating for some people. Many pastors have advanced degrees, know Greek & Hebrew, and have commentaries on their shelves that require a Seminary degree to be able to understand. So how can you even attempt to compete with that?
Well, for starters, you're not supposed to be competing. You are supposed to be trying to understand Scripture. An even more important thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is the most important teacher in the room (John 14:26). The same Spirit that resides in the pastor also resides in you. Give your opinion. Offer your perspective. Be bold.
3. Ask questions, don't give demands.
I know very few pastors who get irritated when people question their teachings with a positive, inquisitive attitude. Over the years I've had many believers in my office, clearly in disagreement with my sermon(s), but who had wonderful attitudes. I found those conversations to be exceedingly fruitful and joyful, as did the other persons. Sometimes they have convinced me I was in error. Sometimes I've convinced them they were in error. Often we agree to disagree. Always, however, we walk away with a great appreciation for the Bible and love for one another.
I've also had people in my office who made demands, yell, scream, or otherwise stomp their feet. They don't want to hear my explanations or clarifications, and sometimes they don't even want to open their Bibles. They just want to pontificate and have me bow to their brilliance or lecture me about my mental (or spiritual) incompetence. In my 12+ years of pastoral ministry, I can tell you those conversations, and those relationships, never end well.
4. Enjoy the conversation
Look, when you go to meet with your pastor there will be two individuals, sitting down, with Bibles open and pens in hand: you and the pastor. You will both be looking at Scripture. This is already and win-win. Enjoy the conversation. Make it less about trying to convince your pastor (or him trying to convince you) and more about the delight of being in God's Word with another believer.
Going to your pastor with a minor Bible disagreement should be a fun and fruitful experience, not one that causes fear, anger, or bitterness. Now, go to your pastor and disagree to the glory of God!