Do you struggle to navigate when you and another believer under/over/beside you hold to such strong, diametrically opposed views? I do. Not just in my personal space but as a local church leader. The other day I woke up with a growing question that I have never thought of before in this area that is such a challenge for me…and I assume for many others like me. Here it is: “Could our ‘principled’ preferences, standards, and even convictions actually be masquerading PETTINESS?!”
A caveat or two before we begin: this post is not talking down standards/convictions or intended to be a thorough discussion of them (many others have done the leg work on that subject), but to humbly ask us to take a hard look at the SOURCE and MOTIVES behind them IN US. The same Spirit and Word that should guide these vital guardrails of our sanctification should also be permitted to ask of me and you the above question!
What is pettiness? According to Oxford online dictionary, it is a noun referring to “undue concern with trivial matters, especially of a small-minded or spiteful nature.” Interesting. Based upon this definition and over two decades of ministry observations, I propose that much of what poses as “principled convictions” are actually espoused by one of two kinds of trivial-matters-oriented people:
THE SMALL-MINDED-processing preferences out of well-intended ignorance.
To the one WITH small-minded pettiness:
- (Please know that this post is in no way to slight your conscience assigned by God and the liberty to exercise it in INDIVIDUAL-ORIENTED spaces and matters.)
- Recognize that your conscience is important but can be skewed and distorted in its assessment of any contemporary issue and the real time application of the general principles of God’s Word.
- Nobody, not even the well-meaning but under-informed believer, has the right to draw the line wherever they feel or believe is right and then unilaterally judge and/or separate from everybody else based upon that standard…only God’s Word has that kind of sovereign, all-encompassing authority! (This could be why those around you distance themselves from you and why those under you, starting with your own children, employees, staff, church members appear to be “rebelling against you and your standards” so frequently.)
- Be willing to admit where your upbringing, cultural norms, and even personality add a subjective comfort level/discomfort level with what is categorically not only “normal or abnormal” but also even “right and wrong” from where you sit.
- Realize that just because something was “preached against or for” by those you respected and were blessed by in past formative years and church life does not, by default, make it out of bounds for the Spirit-led believer. (The same is true in reaction to negative influences in your past.)
- Repent of pride or ignorance that views the “higher standard” as superior when, in reality, it often painfully indicates that you are the weaker and more immature brother described in Romans 14.
To the one LEADING another with small-minded pettiness:
- Be humble enough to admit where the pettiness of your followers is simply a reflection of your own example and embodiment of the same spirit.
- Give the benefit of the doubt as to their motives-they honestly believe that their perpetual discomfort and/or concern is truly a “moral versus immoral” issue.
- Lovingly help them interact with real-life stories, missionaries, and believers who faithfully live out the gospel of Jesus in other contexts in which it is impossible to hold to the same pettiness-posing-as-preferences “Christianity” of our western culture.
- Persistently expose them to other biblical-based, Spirit-applied teaching outside of their normal sphere of influence…including past voices and even your own voice that has previously dominated their thinking.
- Be patient and tender towards them to give room for the Spirit and the Word to overcome their well-intended but fleshly perspective instead of adding fuel to the fire with your own fleshly marginalization, anger, or separation.
I care enough about you and those you influence to ask, “Is your small-mindedness or that of those you lead really only pettiness posing as strong, noble convictions?” I remember a few years hearing Kurt Skelly say that he could usually tell, within a few minutes of conversation, whether a person was well-travelled or not (based largely upon how broad or narrow their range of experience had been and how they viewed others that were different than them.) It is not just narrowness of mind in relation to places/people but also purpose. As one author put it, “Pettiness is the tendency of those without large purposes.” We have the large, God-assigned purposes of getting the gospel to every corner, crevice, and soul on the globe, raising the next generation of world-changing believers, and worshipping the only true God of the entire, expansive universe. These are far to grandiose for us to be sincere but sidetracked by a lack of clarity on what we strongly prefer…for even so-called “spiritual reasons.” One day, WE ALL will stand before Christ and be judged only by His word, not your preferences or mine. A standard by the way that does not lower but demonstratively raises the bar of clear, divine expectations.
2 Ti. 2:23:26 “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”
THE SPITEFUL-pushing preferences out of manipulative ill-will.
To the one WITH spiteful pettiness:
- Realize that every faithful church leader must love his people and the next generation enough to not allow your personal take or sensibilities on things to hold the Christ-assigned vision hostage.
- While I am not promoting change for change’s sake, growing believers, including you, are only those willing to constantly be open to Spirit-led change no matter how unfamiliar or uncomfortable. (This position is in now way espousing to move away from what is clearly revealed in God’s Word for the trends and opinions of man.)
- Own the fact that the local church is not subject to the whims and takes of your comfort zone; it is subject to the head even Christ who was a bit of a disrupter to say the least with the power-hungry, spitefully nit-picky religious leaders of His day.
- Recognize that to weaponize your fleshly-oriented conscience is to side with everything and everyone that is against God and will ultimately lose to that same God.
To the one LEADING another with spiteful pettiness:
- Don’t “beat around the bush” with this categorical pettiness; deal with it directly not out of hate for this person but out of love for everyone and everything is your church that needs protected from its contamination and ruin.
- Push back against the “woe is me being stuck with this problem” by remembering that spiritual leaders of every generation have had to deal with this same insincere nemesis and friction.
- Lead with faith and obedience to only what God’s Word and Spirit are instructing you to do and be, not out of fear that coddles and acquiescences…all in a futile attempt to maintain an artificial, low-maintenance kind of peace.
- Never deal with this kind of pettiness alone; enlist the counsel and collaboration of other grounded, gracious leaders inside of and outside of your local context to help protect you from reacting in like kind with a “more sanctified” outlook in your mind but just as spitefully petty in another direction.
I also care enough about the future of your soul, family, and church to ask, “Is your ill-disguised spite or that of those you lead really only pettiness posing as sincere, noble convictions?” If you are high-maintenance and impossible to please towards your God-given leaders, you will answer for where you are contributing to an inefficient ministry that is distracted from the noble, necessary calling of winning and discipling eternal souls. In the end, you who are spitefully petty or misleading those who are will discover that you were the “victim” of a war that God was never fighting and will suffer the loss all of the time, energy, and opportunities intended to enable you to glorify God based upon His standards alone. Bluntly put, as one author writes, “Weaponizing your opinion is often a symptom of deep unrest.” How dare you or me couch our seething hatred for God or His hand-picked leader/follower in our lives within what we claim are sanctified reservations!
2 Ti 2:14-16 “Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.”
Are you ready for the final big thought that has recently brought me to my knees? Mistaking our ugly, subtle pettiness for “justifiable standards/convictions” not only makes us just like the very people we are prone to ignorantly or willfully judge but oftentimes worse because they likely are following their own untethered-from-divine-truth preferences but without the better-than-thou judgment of us! (They may be egregiously off in their position, but at least their disposition is more gracious.)
While this post is in no way intended to be indirectly confronting anyone in particular in my life, you can do whatever you want with your preferences. But as for me, I choose to get better at letting God’s Word and Spirit alone to be my guide/other’s guide for faith and practice, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you…or me. As the African proverb puts it, “The lion does not turn around when a small dog barks.” I am a long way from the lion level of leadership, but I’m working at it. And the only way I found that works, when my own comfort level or that of others is pushing back, is through building my life less upon man’s subjective preferences and more upon the immutable principles of God’s Word. As one author put it, “Pettiness usually stems from feelings – feelings of being treated unfairly, favoritism, or just plain old insecurity.” Simply put, don’t be a follower or leader who is guided by human feelings, your own or otherwise. Dig into the eternal truths of the Bible and lose your pettiness and the misguided illusions of it once and for all. As Evangelist Dave Young just wisely posted this week, “In many of the issues of our day – the Bible is often far more simple and a bit more BROAD – than most of us are COMFORTABLE.”