Dealing with Difficult Brethren

by W. Frank Walton

This is a chapter from an upcoming book, "Behind the Preacher's Door." The book deals with challenges that preachers' face, with practical, scriptural solutions in doing the work of an evangelist.

I have been…in danger of false brethren” (II Corinthians 11:26). The apostle Paul faced some difficult brethren, which pained his life. So, faithful preachers can expect there will be difficult brethren to face, because we live in a wicked world. I once received a letter from an agitated brother who did not like something I had written. Among his harsh comments, he said “this is enough to make a maggot vomit!” Wow! I highlighted in yellow several other inflammatory remarks and returned the letter to him, asking him if he really to meant to say these hard things. Guess what? He called me and apologized for overreacting. This shows that good-hearted brethren can be touched in their conscience to change.

Paul’s Example with the Vexing Corinthian Brethren

Mastering the practical principles of 1 & 2 Corinthians of how Paul effectively dealt with the deeply flawed Corinthian brethren can help us turn around difficult brethren. God’s resources are abundantly able to help us cope with any trouble (as summed up in II Corinthians 6:1-13).

The Corinthian correspondence is the most detailed look inside a New Testament church. They were deeply troubled because they were deeply “carnal” (I Corinthians 3:1-2). “Jealousy” and “strife” ensued (I Corinthians 3:3; cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

What were their specific problems? In I Corinthians, the brethren were divided into cliques over favorite preachers (I Corinthians 1:10-13). They were enamored with worldly, Greek philosophy and following men (I Corinthians 1:18-3:4, 4:8-10). They arrogantly tolerated a member living in incest (I Corinthians 5:1-13). They started lawsuits to resolve religious matters (I Corinthians 6:1-8). Some promoted sexual immorality as like a natural desire for food (I Corinthians 6:12-20). They were troubled about marital problems (I Corinthians 7:1-40), had conflicts and misunderstandings over eating meats offered to pagan idols (I Corinthians 8:1-13; 10:23-33) and temptations relative to idolatry (I Corinthians 10:1-22). Women removed their veils in worship, which had cultural significance at Corinth of female insubordination (I Corinthians 11:2-16). They had disruptive observances of the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:17-34). Spirituals gifts engendered competitive jealousy and confusion, with some assertive women speaking out of turn (I Corinthians 12:1-14:40). Some taught there was no resurrection, denying the key doctrine of Christ’s resurrection (I Corinthians 15:12). Instead of giving up on them, Paul planned to visit and stay with them, in order to strengthen them (I Corinthians 16:6). What preacher today would like to move to such a work?

Also, 2 Corinthians shows problems remained at Corinth. Still, Paul did not give up. He had made a “painful” second visit to deal with unresolved problems from the first letter (II Corinthians 2:1; cf. 12:14; 13:1). What had changed in the church? I deduce that the incestuous brother specified for discipline in I Corinthians 5:3-5 is the one disciplined by the majority in II Corinthians 2:6. He had sinned against Paul (II Corinthians 2:10; 7:12). It seems most of the Corinthians had repented of the problems in I Corinthians, as well as the rebellion against Paul’s apostolic authority (II Corinthians 7:9-11). So, I infer that this sin against Paul was the incestuous brother, to retaliate against Paul for being publicly rebuked by him, thereby introduced “false apostles” (II Corinthians 11:3) into the Corinthian church. These subsequently misled the church and attacked Paul’s apostolic ministry. In 2 Corinthians, Paul explains his sincere motives for ministry (II Corinthians 1-7). Then, after reminding them of their promise to help needy saints in Jerusalem (II Corinthians 8-9), Paul takes on the false teachers to defend his apostleship work for Christ (II Corinthians 10:1-12:18).

Why did God preserve all this “dirty laundry” in the lengthy Corinthian correspondence? In four letters (I Corinthians 5:9, II Corinthians 2:1-4) and three trips (II Corinthians 12:14, 13:1), all this being compressed in a few years (Acts 18:1-20:3), Paul shows how to effectively deal with problems in the local church. Imperfect brethren have problems, some very deeply ingrained, but the gospel message has the power to either eventually work through these problems or repudiate them in corrective church discipline (I Corinthians 5:6, 13; II Corinthians 12:20-21).

It’s Still a Tough World Out There … With Some Brethren’s Help

I’ve heard various preachers’ horror stories in dealing with some brethren’s bad behavior. I’ve experienced some of this too. When I moved to one church, a sister told me, “This church is doctrinally conservative but morally liberal. If you knew what was going on behind the scenes, you would pack your bags and move back.” Another sister spent several years staring at the side wall during my sermons (because she could not stand to even look at me), along with shuffling through her purse, grousing out loud about the lesson, etc. When I called to try to resolve the problem, she ended up hanging up the phone. This was an elder’s wife!

In twenty-seven years of preaching, I’ve had to deal directly with individual brethren about: pornography, lying, gossiping, profanity, unscriptural divorce, adultery, teens disrespectfully cutting up in Bible class, obnoxious and disruptive chatter during public worship, bizarre doctrines about the Godhead, the neglect corrective church discipline, etc. I had to face an elder, in the presence of the other elders, to give Biblical reasons why he should resign due to his inability to do an elder’s work. (The other elders concurred he should resign but didn’t want to tell him to his face.) I’ve twice had elders apologize to me, after I had left, that they were sorry they had not dealt with problems. In addition, I sat in a business meeting when a hot-headed brother threw out a proposal to fire me, which upset most of the brethren: “Some of the members here think it is time to get another preacher!” These difficulties will affect a preacher’s family, too. My wife had to endure continually being bad-mouthed behind her back by a deacon’s wife, who would hypocritically smile to her face. This member said to another deacon’s wife, “I can’t stand her, and I don’t know why.” When confronted in an effort to resolve it, she denied it but later continued this trashing of my wife. Yes, we live in an imperfect world. We’re all are beset by various sins and weaknesses, which include our own personal foibles. (I once mentioned in a sermon that I was an imperfect preacher, and a vexing brother said, “Amen!”).

Yet, preaching is the great work of saving precious souls, for whom Christ died. We are privileged to serve the Lord by being on the front lines of helping imperfect brethren, as well as ourselves, grow up in the Lord. A dedicated preacher can draw closer to Jesus, continue to serve the brethren’s spiritual welfare by teaching and modeling the gospel, without becoming disillusioned. A minority of brethren cause a majority of problems in the local church. The vast majority of the Lord’s people are the most wonderful people on earth.

Practical Principles from Paul’s Example with Corinth

Corinth was a transient, prosperous port city. It was a cesspool of sin in the sinful Roman world. Sexual perversity was so rampant at Corinth that Aristophanes coined the Greek verb korinthiazomai (to act the Corinthian) that was synonymous with sexual license (Fragmenta 354). Corinth was home of the Temple of Aphrodite, serviced by a 1,000 Temple prostitutes. Also, pagan Greek philosophy enveloped Corinth.

Today, we’re all surrounded by a corrosive, fallen world that can weaken any among us. A preacher told me that in 10 years at a congregation, he had to deal with 10 cases of adultery. There are no perfect churches, and if there were, preachers would not be needed. Where do we begin?

Love Looks for the Good

We must preach out of love for souls, as well as love for God and love for the truth. Paul concluded I Corinthians, which had rebuked their many sins, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus” (I Corinthians 16:24; cf. I Corinthians 4:2; II Corinthians 2:4). He urged the troubled church, “Pursue love….Let all you do be done in love” (I Corinthians 14:1; 16:14). He genuinely saw them as his “beloved brethren” (I Corinthians 15:58; II Corinthians 7:3). In the second epistle, he opined with broken-hearted love, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?" (II Corinthians 12:15; cf. II Corinthians 10:14; 11:11). He was not arrogantly miffed that the Corinthians did not seem to fully appreciate him. He was gladly “spent” for them, if it helped to rescue their soul. He always affirmed his love for them, without which service is nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-3). Expressing genuine love helps to lower brethren’s defense shields and be more accepting of correction. If we do “everything…in love” (I Corinthians 16:14), then we discover, as Dee Bowman pointed out to me years ago, that truly it is “love is what makes you real” (The Velveteen Rabbit).

Love is sacrificial goodwill to meet the highest good of another. A mark of agape love that it is not based on the merits of the object of love, but like God, is based on the character of the lover and the need of the one loved. Love’s “unconquerable benevolence” (Barclay) is the divine motivation to deal with and help resolve difficulties (I John 4:7-21). Love is optimistic in dealing with brethren (I Corinthians 13:7-8a). Paul confidently believed in their potential in Christ: “who will confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:8). Love will treat people in view of what they can become, not what they have been at their worst moment.

Paul’s love grew from his connection in helping convert many of them to Christ crucified, the Savior of sinners (Acts 18:8; I Corinthians 2:2; 15:1-4). They “were” vile sinners, such as homosexuals and transvestites (I Corinthians 6:9-10), but no longer! They were “sanctified in Christ Jesus…in everything you were enriched in Him” (I Corinthians 1:2,5). We need to appreciate where people came from and what they’ve had to overcome to be a Christian. People don’t become what they are overnight and they will not be perfected overnight either.

Paul lovingly affirmed the good in them, “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ” (I Corinthians 1:4; cf. II Corinthians 1:11-12). He didn’t see only their flaws. The only hope to change sinners into saints is the “grace of God.” He appreciated the good they were doing in keeping the apostolic traditions (I Corinthians 11:2).

Because Paul saw good in them, he challenged them to do right: to “follow Christ” (I Corinthians 11:2; 6:17), to be a holy temple the Lord (I Corinthians 3:16-17), to work out their inner conflict (I Corinthians 6:1,5), to outgrow immaturity (I Corinthians 14:20), and to do “all things decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40). They could do this because they were a “living letter” written by the Spirit on their hearts (II Corinthians 3:3).

What was the result? The majority of the Corinthian brethren repented (II Corinthians 7:9-10). Paul expressed great appreciation for their change (II Corinthians 7:4-16). Some difficult brethren are simply immature or in the process of refining their character flaws. I’ve seen troubled Christians grow stronger and / or mellow over time. I’ve seen one brother, who was caught up in homosexuality for fifteen years, repent and come back to the Lord because truth could still touch his heart. Others are incorrigible, like the man living with his father’s wife (I Corinthians 5:1-13), who needed strong medicine of the public rebuke of corrective church discipline to wake him up (I Corinthians 5:5).

When we mine for gold, we don’t look for dirt, rather we look for the precious gold hidden in the dirt. Robert Turner observed that if a preacher “expects perfection or nothing, he will get nothing. Such an attitude can blind him to his own sins and cause him to despise others (Luke 18:9-14). Yet, he must keep the perfect standard before himself and others and work with them toward that goal” (What It Is, Is Preaching, p. 141).

Maintain a Christ-like Heart of Patient Service.

Paul is a model of Christ-like service to help brethren go to heaven (I Corinthians 3:5). Paul’s actions calculated, not to make himself look good, but to serve the Corinthians’ best interest. He assured the recalcitrant Corinthians, “It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ; and all for your upbuilding, beloved” (II Corinthians 12:9; cf. II Corinthians 10:8; 13:10). He was selfless servant, even if his critics put the worst spin on his actions (II Corinthians 1:17,23). Paul’s servant’s heart is revealed in his motivation: “not that we lord it over your faith but are workers for your joy” (II Corinthians 1:24). 

Sometimes a preacher is personally hurt by thoughtless, mean-spirited brethren. He can lose his tender, loving heart and become cynical and allow his hurts to angrily seep out in his preaching. It comes across as “fussing at the brethren,” instead of preaching “to” the welfare of the church.

Preachers, as an example of Christian service, must die to self and model selfless humility of being a slave of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 4:1-11). In I Corinthians 4:1, Paul said he was Christ’s “servant” (Gr. huperetes, lit. “an under rower” as a slave on a galley ship).  He did not see himself as a “big name preacher.” He was not “anything” of great consequence (I Corinthians 3:7), because spiritual growth only comes from God (I Corinthians 3:6). Paul saw himself as just an “earthen vessel” (a clay jar) that had the privilege of carrying the precious gospel “treasure” (II Corinthians 4:7). He had no ego to bruise, because He had died with Christ. So, he didn’t care if he was critiqued (I Corinthians 4:3). “We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your bondservants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5). He gladly would forego personal privileges and rights to help the brethren advance the cause of Christ (I Corinthians 9:12,19,22,23). He always held out the hope of reconciling their differences (II Corinthians 6:11-13; 7:2).

In serving the welfare of brethren, ministers must engage in humble introspection (I Corinthians 4:4; II Corinthians 13:5). In dealing with difficult brethren, I must honestly ask myself, “I am part of the problem?” We’re still a work in progress, with various flaws to overcome (cf. Philippians 1:15,17). So, if we have a prideful, overbearing ego, it will surely expose itself in conflict with brethren. Remember that John Mark experienced temporary failure in preaching (Acts 13:13, 15:38), but he learned from his shortcoming and later became a very useful preacher (I Peter 5:13; II Timothy 4:11). We should see our problems as our teachers to refine our character (James 1:2-4).

Humbly Depend on the Lord and Not Self.

God’s spiritual power is more than able to cope with any problem: “as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses…in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God” (II Corinthians 6:4,6-7). Paul depended on the Lord, despite massive challenges. This is why he was “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (II Corinthians 6:10). See difficulties as a faith building exercise to discover what Paul discovered – God is always sufficient (II Corinthians 3:5). "The surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (II Corinthians 4:7).

In fact, Paul’s thorn in the flesh (II Corinthians 12:7-9), in context, was his difficulties that “weakened” him in preaching (II Corinthians 12:10; cf. II Corinthians 11:23-33). This “weakness” was an occasion for humble trust in the Lord. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). In our difficulties we discover Christ’s strength to carry on.

Paul said his example was valid only to the extent he “followed Christ” (I Corinthians 11:2). He encouraged the Corinthians to discover the life-changing power of thinking on the glory of the Lord and being spiritually transformed into His image (II Corinthians 3:18). Preachers serve the Lord foremost (II Corinthians 4:5-5:9) and not just to keep a paycheck.

Dealing with difficult brethren can be Christ’s opportunity for a preacher to grow as a servant. The apostle Paul said, “The members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary” (I Corinthians 12:22). Why? It forces us to give them attention to met their spiritual needs, which is an opportunity to grow in Christ-like service (I Corinthians 12:23-27). The preacher lives and works for our gracious Savior, in order to help others go to heaven. Paul was patient with his brethren, in order to give them time to develop (II Corinthians 1:23-24).

Focus On Scripture and Not Personalities.

Difficulties with brethren often just carnal personality conflicts. Paul’s appeals are rooted in objective truth. He was called “by the will of God…to preach the gospel” (I Corinthians 1:1,17). “What matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (I Corinthians 7:19). Our goal should be that it is not who is right that matters but what is right before the Lord, who will judge us in the end (II Corinthians 5:10).

I once dealt with a couple undergoing what appeared to be an unscriptural divorce (contra Matthew 19:9). The sister, bothered about me questioning her, said, “One elder said they had to deal with this because they were being `pressured.’” This was sad news to me, because I had asked the elders about what they were going to do about this divorce situation. Elders, preachers and brethren should deal with problems in the church because of what Scripture commands, not just because somebody objects and “pressures” them to deal with it.

Paul taught the truth for their eternal good (I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 12:19; 10:8; 13:7,10), not to win a personal argument. Paul was always focused on upholding “the truth” (II Corinthians 13:8), not his personal feelings. A strong Biblical appeal is central to growing a healthy church, “so your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:5). Paul begged them to be united “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:10). Divine authority is the standard. A church is only as strong as the Bible teaching that it demands.

I once was threatened by an elder with possibly losing my job for preaching the truth on the qualifications of elders. I responded to this veiled threat: “I’ll just tell the next preacher that preaching the truth on an sensitive topic may cost him his job, and so what kind of preacher do you think you’ll get?”

In about two dozen instances, Paul rested his case the quote: “it is written” (I Corinthians 1:19,31; 2:9,16; 3:19-20; 6:16; 9:9,10; 10:7,26; 11:24-25; 14:21,34; 15:45,54; II Corinthians 6:2,16-18; 8:15; 9:9). We must ever ask, “What does the Bible say?” Paul insisted that his teaching was not his but “the commandments of the Lord” (I Corinthians 14:37). He used Old Testament examples to warn of the consequences of ungodly attitudes and actions (I Corinthians 10:6,11,13). Repeated appeals to Scriptural teaching can help brethren see that this is not a personal opinion but our responsibility before God.

I have seen Scripture pierce the foibles of immature, short-sighted brethren and turn them around. If brethren would just act like Christians, according to the Scriptures, there isn’t problem that couldn’t be solved!

Confront Sin to Save Souls.

The Corinthian correspondence is filled with various sins that Paul specified and admonished to be corrected. If difficulties in the church can be traced to sinful conduct or a wicked character fault, it must be corrected or those impenitent brethren will be condemned on Judgment Day (II Corinthians 5:10). “Judge those within the church…Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (I Corinthians 5:12,13).

So, preachers have front-line responsibility before God and to the brethren to rebuke crying sins in the church (II Timothy 4:2; cf. Ezekiel 3:17-21). I recall having to confront a deacon in a church who continually “reviled” me behind my back, trying to tear down my work for the Lord. (Paul enumerated a “reviler,” along with others sins in I Corinthians 5:11 that should not be tolerated in the local church.) When I confronted about needing to resolve this, he arrogantly quipped, “I don’t have to talk to you about anything.” How ignorant of the Biblical duty to resolve sins in attitude, word and deed.

At Corinth, Paul’s fidelity to truth meant he didn’t shy away from dealing with sinful behavior. “We are ready to punish all disobedience” (II Corinthians 11:6). More sins are exposed and rebuked at Corinth than any other church in the New Testament. He identified the underlying condition of many as a lack of dedication to the Lord, being “weak” and “sick” and “asleep” (I Corinthians 11:30). He also exposed their carnality, arrogance and worldly thinking (I Corinthians 3:1-3; 4:6-7,18; 5:2; II Corinthians 10:7). Paul certainly didn’t have the attitude to just teach nice, fluffy lessons and gloss over their damning sins.

Moral cowardice fears the trauma of confronting brethren’s persistent, pernicious sin. Yet, Paul confidently asserted, in correcting perversions in worship: “there must be divisions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident” (I Corinthians 11:19). Later, he admonished the brethren to “separate” themselves from the bad influence of the false apostles (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1). Paul’s loving honesty exposed the reality of sin. We do not one a favor by allowing them to go to hell with a good conscience.

Paul’s teaching on sin did help the majority of the Corinthians to repent and change for the better (II Corinthians 2:7; 7:9-10). Paul’s scriptural warnings against sin were balanced with loving and tender appeals (I Corinthians 16:24; II Corinthians 6:1-3,11-13). He challenges them, “Examine yourselves, whether or not if you are in the faith” (II Corinthians 13:5). We are all accountable to God for our conduct. “For we all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (II Corinthians 5:10). It is the “fear of the Lord” that sobers us up to our personal accountability to God and the need to persuade others to turn from sin (II Corinthians 5:11).

As a preacher, don’t let a few bad apples sour you on the great work of preaching. Focus on the many good brethren willing to accept Biblical teaching. A lack of consistent church discipline allows a thorny backlog of problems. If the local church clearly shows, over time, that it is too cowardly, lax, or lazy to practice corrective church discipline, then you will be better off going to a church willing to stand for the whole truth. Leave those incorrigible brethren in the Hands of the Lord. They may have unfairly condemned your scriptural work, but they have condemned themselves to wickness.

Don’t Defend Yourself, but Do Defend the Lord’s Work Being Done.

Paul was very open and vulnerable with dealing with the Corinthians (II Corinthians 6:11). He also gave a vigorous defense of the scriptural integrity of His apostolic work at Corinth against his critics: “I will not be put to shame” (II Corinthians 10:8). In preaching, we must distinguish in upholding divine truth and a personal grievance. Remember, I am not that important but what I am doing for the Lord is eternally important. “Let no one despise you” (Titus 2:15).

Paul confronted spiritual error foisted by religious errorist in the church. “They” (II Corinthians 10:10; 11:13-15,18) were identified as “false apostles, deceitful workers … ministers of Satan” (II Corinthians 11:13-15). He used gospel truth to tear down the fallacy of their worldly tactics" (II Corinthians 10:1-7) and fleshly subjectivism (II Corinthians 10:12-18). “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (II Corinthians 10:5).

Some brethren seem to think that the preacher is paid to be the personal dart board of disgruntled members. I’ve had brethren tell me, “You can’t stop people from talking about you. Just overlook it.” Personal opinions can be overlooked but there are “sins of the tongue” (grumbling, reviling, lying, gossip, etc.) that can damn an impenitent soul to hell and can poison the minds of unsuspecting brethren against the preacher’s work. Again, it is the Lord’s work done by the preacher that should be defended, not the preacher’s personality or feelings.

Allowing ungodly, underhanded tactics to hurt a preacher’s work is a corrupting influence in a congregation that professes to stand for the truth and against sin. When there’s a conflict, some think the easy answer is: “let’s get a new preacher.” If the preacher leaves, the unpleasantries of the issue may pass, but the sinful character that reared its ugly head will only be submerged, awaiting the heart-searching judgment in the end (II Corinthians 5:10, I Timothy 5:24).

If it happens that you must a congregation because you have done all you can scripturally do, it is important as you leave to not “shoot over your shoulder” (Harold Comer) by taking cheap shots from the pulpit at the brethren. This helps nothing. Snide remarks will seem as petty sniping.

Keep a Good Conscience.

In dealing with difficult brethren, it is important to not become bitter, cynical, or self-pitying. So, it is imperative in the challenging exercise of dealing with difficult brethren, to maintain a good conscience before the Lord. Paul said, “I am conscious of nothing against myself” (I Corinthians 4:4). While I Corinthians is the most intimate view inside a New Testament church, 2 Corinthians is the most intimate view inside a New Testament apostle and His motives. His integrity was above reproach (II Corinthians 1:12, 2:4,17). In dealing with church problems, his guiding philosophy was: “We also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (II Corinthians 5:9). Paul disciplined himself like a champion athlete, to keep his eye on running the race faithfully (I Corinthians 9:24-27). He realized that his work in the Corinthian brethren could be “burned up” (lost) but he himself could still be “saved” (I Corinthians 3:15). Just trust that God’s plan will work if we will work God’s plan.

We can keep our conscience clean, by looking to heaven. The problems of this world will not matter  in the end. Despite problems, Paul was “renewed day by day” (II Corinthians 4:16). Whether adversity wears us down or polishes us up depends on what we are on the inside. Look at present difficulties in light of the eternal reward (II Corinthians 4:16-18). This shrinks our problems down to size. Paul saw any difficulty as his ally that “works for us an eternal weight of glory” (II Corinthians 4:17). In heaven’s light, our problems are “light” and “momentary” (II Corinthians 4:16).

Listen to Robert Turner’s wisdom from 60 years of preaching: “In the final analysis, the preacher must deal with people. His knowledge of truth and principles will go for naught unless he learns to cope with and apply the message to people” (What It Is, Is Preaching, p. 141). Mastering the rich contents of 1 & 2 Corinthians in dealing with difficult brethren, Paul’s example will strengthen us in effectively doing the glorious work a faithful evangelist.