Why do Christians have such a hard time forgiving one another? Why, instead of bearing with one another in love, do we let small resentments build into a flood of bitterness that defiles everyone? Is it true, as John Stott says, that Christians have a pathological tendency to split? In my experience, splits are almost never over theological issues. They are usually over resentments that build up over small differences in philosophy of ministry or personal conflict.
I have been thinking about bitterness and forgiveness all week in the wake of the conflict at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the famous church pastored by D. James Kennedy for 48 years. This past March, Coral Ridge called Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, to be their senior pastor. Less than six months later, at a congregational meeting, over 400 members voted for his resignation; two-thirds voted to retain him. What had gone wrong? How did the unity of this church get so badly broken? How did this disagreement get to the point where it was spilling out into the public and getting coverage by the local media?
It is not my goal in this article to sort out who is right and wrong. Frankly, I am not sure. There are always two sides to a story, and usually both sides have contributed to the mess. For something to get to this point, people on both sides of the argument have failed to love one another, bear with one another, speak the truth in love, and confront one another properly (Eph. 4:2, 4:31-32; Col. 3:13). Bitterness has taken root, and it has defiled everyone (Heb. 12:15). Unity is broken, and the church's witness to a watching world has been compromised. That much is clear.
I am reminded of a certain Dallas church that decided to split and then fight over the property. They both filed lawsuits against the other, ignoring the Scripture injunction against suing other Christians. Thankfully, the judge referred the case back to the denomination to handle. During the hearing, the church courts discovered that the conflict had begun years before at a church dinner when a certain elder was served a smaller piece of ham than the child seated next to him. Sadly, this choice tidbit of news was reported in the local newspapers for everyone to read and laugh at. But it is no laughing matter. Sometimes the smallest slights turn into the biggest roots of bitterness that can defile a whole church.
As pastors, we have experienced this. People hold onto bitterness for years before it finally comes out—typically in an explosion, opposition to our leadership, or a split. I once had a man call me to tell me he was leaving the church; I asked him to tell me why. He said he had a whole list of grievances. "Really," I said. "How far back do they go?"
"At least three years," he said.
"Why did you not come to me when the first incident happened?"
"Because I was doing the Christian thing—bearing it in love," he answered.
"But," I asked, "How is that possible if you are bringing it up now? If you had borne it in love, it would be forgiven and not on your list." He did not get what I was saying. So I asked him, "Why don't we start at the top of the list with the grievance that is the oldest."