An Open Letter to the Church Member Hurt by Their Local Church

This article is part of the Open Letters series.

Dear Brother or Sister,

Local churches hurt people. People hurt people, of course, but since churches are people, churches have the capacity to inflict severe relational pain.

By God’s grace the reverse is also true. The local church is designed by Christ to function as a spring of encouragement and joy to its members. I hope that you have experienced the blessing of walking in fellowship with a body of believers that Jesus used, or is now using, to strengthen your faith and envelop you in covenantal love.

But despite Christ’s gracious provision, you may find yourself experiencing heartache in the context of a church for which Jesus died. Ironic, isn’t it? By grace alone the risen Christ is gathering out of the nations a people for his name (Acts 2:38–39). He forms us into a new humanity, uniting us to himself (Eph. 2:11–22; Gal. 2:20). We are adopted as his children and chosen as his holy bride (Rom. 8:14–17; Eph. 5:23–32; Rev. 19:6–8). He sovereignly places us in the body to complete one another (1 Cor. 12:12–27). How ironic, then, that relating to God’s people can result in such deep heartache.

What If I've Been Hurt by My Church?

Daniel P. Miller

In this addition to the Church Questions series, Daniel Miller helps Christians understand their moral responsibility when responding to common frustrations in the church.

Ironic, but not mysterious. The closer the human relationship, the more pain one suffers when that relationship falters. We routinely witness this in families. It’s why divorce, child rebellion, family feuds, neglect, and the like are such bitter heartaches. The closer the relationship, the greater the potential not only for joy but also for sorrow.

In the spiritual family of a local church, such heartache often stems from personal offense—one member wrongs another. At other times the problem is more corporate in nature—the departure of a leader, a change in policy, an altered ministry direction that seems to betray much of what you once loved about your church, and the like.

It’s not hard to identify the source of the pain we suffer in the context of a body of believers. It’s considerably harder to respond to that pain in God-honoring ways.

Don’t breeze past that “God-honoring” bit. Expressive Individualism programs us to feel our pain while avoiding hard questions about our responses to it. Hurt feelings are as natural as shivering from cold on a wintry day, we are assured by our therapeutic world. Therefore, how I feel about someone’s ill treatment of me or how I feel about a hurtful ministry change becomes not only my responsibility to own but everyone else’s obligation to affirm.

The Bible does not counsel us in this direction. Rather, it calls us to respond to such pain with a devotion to love others and glorify Christ in his church. This means that despite how terribly I may feel, Christ’s renown remains of supreme importance. Therefore my affections for his honor in the assembly must never fall below affections for my own. If they do I am likely to cause as much damage in the future as I’ve suffered in the past.

Our Redeemer is never surprised by sin, nor has he ever promised us a church that’s free of it. Every church family hurts people one way or another. What the Lord has done is to arm us with wise, Christ-honoring habits of response. While not an exhaustive list, consider the following disciplines. They are vital to the health of churches, the maturity of members, and your spiritual well-being.

First, learn to delay judgement (Prov. 18:13). When you feel wronged, work to replace the rush-to-judgment instinct with patient, level-headed assessment of facts. The perception that someone has wronged you does not secure for you the sovereign authority to determine reality with respect to yourself or your offender. Permit the passage of time to unearth facts that may illumine a more accurate assessment of events. Truth brokers in accuracy, and truth matters to God.

Second, when someone offends you, entrust yourself to God in prayer (1 Pet. 2:23). This seems easier than it is. When a church member wrongs us or a church disappoints us, self-reliant counter responses naturally fill our heads. We must lay down our fleshly weapons and hand our offenses to our heavenly advocate in prayer. It is wise to admit from the outset that this is God’s fight more than it is yours. His honor is chiefly at stake, not your own.

Third, thoughtfully assess the desires of your heart. This is challenging when your heart is aching under the weight of offense or disillusionment. But it’s important to shorten the distance between that first bitter taste of heartache and the first moment of clear-headed self-analysis. Learn to ask yourself, What do I most want right now? By disciplining myself to ask this question, I’ve learned that most of the offenses I’ve suffered in ministry would have never happened apart from sin residing in me. This is an ugly discovery, I’ll admit. It’s also proven remarkably beneficial.

Fourth, pursue forgiveness and reconciliation with your offender. While there are times we can cover sin in love (Prov. 19:11; 1 Pet. 4:9), suffering deep, relational pain is seldom one of those times. Jesus places the responsibility on the offended party to initiate a conversation (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:3–4). He knows nothing of the commonly held self-counsel that says, He wronged me, so it’s his job to come to me and apologize. Jesus’s reconciling work moves toward his offenders. To follow his lead in pursuit of gospel reconciliation, I must love the health of Jesus’s church more than the pleasure of nursing my wounds. I must seek to forgive, not primarily so that I may feel better, but to attain the victory of reconciliation with my alienated brother or sister.

These four practices will not necessarily ease your suffering. Some of them may actually heighten your pain. But what now? Having responded biblically, what are you to do with an aching heart that continues to suffer?

Set your eyes on eternity. This is not a means of ignoring reality, but the only way of truly facing it.

First, as the psalmists demonstrate, face your hurt by describing it as accurately as possible. A nameless terror is doubly terrorizing. Don’t propose merely to tough it out. Don’t minimize your suffering, ignore it, or allow it to feed a root of bitterness in your heart. Rather, name it; and by naming it, you reduce it to size.

Second, locate your hurt in time and space. If you don’t observe its spatial boundaries, you will falsely assign it divine attributes. Rejoice that it has a shelf life. Only God endures forever. Prize the faith-building habit of waiting patiently for relief from the Lord, even if that relief is delayed until you see his face.

Third, preach good sermons to your head. Meditate on God’s revealed word and speak that counsel to your soul. Wounded feelings are very real, but they have no power to steer you to gospel hope. Scripture does, and Scripture will.

Fourth, pray and keep on praying even when it seems God is not listening—especially when it seems he is not listening. Again, the psalmists of Israel display this habit. Even when it seemed that God had hidden his face from them, they kept praying in the dark until the light returned.

Fifth, recognize that God often uses disillusionment to free us from idolatries that might otherwise derail our faith in him. Disillusionment liberates us from illusions about what others ought to be or what they ought to do. When such illusions remain untouched, they can entangle our hearts with idolatrous satisfaction in how things are. When those illusions are popped, we see reality more clearly and rest our hope not in what we expect of others but in God’s promises.

Finally, set your eyes on eternity. This is not a means of ignoring reality, but the only way of truly facing it. There is a day when all the pain you suffer from the presence of sin and Satan will vanish. Focus more on your future accounting before Christ than on those who fail you on earth. Above all, trust in the Lord who promises never to leave or forsake his children (Heb. 13:5).

Local churches hurt people. Thankfully, the Lord of the church will one day wipe away every tear, including yours. For now he calls us to endure suffering faithfully, in the interest of the church for which he died, and in pursuit of his, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In the end, nothing else will ultimately matter.

With you in Christ,

Daniel P. Miller is the author of What If I’ve Been Hurt by My Church?.

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