Surprised By Strife? Pastoral Remedies to Controversy in the Local Church | Dewey Dovel

by | Sep 27, 2022 | Church History, Practical Theology



In the year leading up to his death, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) uttered one of the most memorable proverbs in United States history: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”[1] Although intentionally reductionistic in nature, Franklin’s pithy statement encapsulates two common denominators for life in America. Every American citizen will experience death, and to some degree, every American citizen will be impacted by taxation. Yet for Christians living in America, and in every corner of the world, division in the local church is another experience that is immensely widespread. According to a 2017 study conducted by William D. Henard, roughly 250 pastors are either terminated or leave the ministry altogether on a monthly basis.[2] The most prominent contributing factor to this troubling statistic is unbridled controversy in the local church.[3]

Despite Scripture’s perpetual exhortations for believers to be unified (Ps. 133:1; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:3), there are also many warnings about division being a recurring threat to the harmony of local church life (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6; Titus 3:9-11). In the subsequent centuries to the Apostolic era, Christians have sought to preserve unity and combat strife at all costs.[4] One such example from the Particular Baptist tradition is crystallized in The Glory of a True Church, a short book authored by Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) on biblical ecclesiology.[5] Keach’s motivation for writing this volume was rooted in a desire to provide “a small and plain tract concerning the rules of the discipline of a gospel church.”[6] Although Keach authored this work in the seventeenth century, his correctional insights about local church controversy are relevant to every generation of Christians. As such, the remainder of this article features what Keach deemed to be “common causes of discord [in a local church].”[7] For the sake of concision, and to avoid repetition, what follows is a 13-part summarization of Keach’s arguments along with brief supplemental commentary.[8]

May the reader be richly edified through the pastoral counsel offered by Benjamin Keach!


1. An Absence of Church Discipline

One cause of discord is through the ignorance in some members of the rules of discipline and right government (Matt. 18:15): particularly when that rule in Matthew 18 is not followed… To prevent this, the discipline of the church should be taught; and the members informed of their duties.[9]

According to Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, a true church will be marked by at least three distinctives: (1) the preaching of the Gospel; (2) the administration of the sacraments (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper); (3) the administration of church discipline.[10] Although written a century before Keach’s time, and in an entirely different country, this portion of the Belgic Confession stands in lockstep agreement with Keach’s understanding of a God-exalting church. For Keach, perhaps the greatest cause for discord in a congregation is an absence of church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13).[11]


2. A Lack of Love Amongst Church Members

Another thing that causes trouble and disorder in a church is a lack of love and tender affections toward one another; as also not having a full sight and sense of the great evil of breaking the bonds of peace and unity (John 13:12; Eph. 4:3).[12]

Within the context of a letter designed to cultivate assurance of salvation, the Apostle John notified first century Christians that a mark of conversion was love for the brethren (1 John 3:14-15). The quality of love referred to by John is not merely defined by emotion or sentimentalism, but rather, it is shaped by the behavioral postures delineated in Paul’s famous “love chapter” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Keach’s emphasis on the necessity for church members to love one another not only gets to the heart of safeguarding unity amongst fellow believers, but ultimately gets to the heart of Christianity itself (John 13:35).


3. The Concealment of Sin by Church Members

Another disorderly practice is this: when one member or another knows of some sinful act or evils done by one or more members, and they conceal it (Acts 5:3, 8); or do not act according to this rule—pretending they would not be looked upon as contentious persons (Lev. 19:17). However, hereby they may become guilty of other men’s sins, and also suffer the name of God and the church to lie under reproach, and all through their neglect. This is a great iniquity.[13]

Regardless of their motivation for doing so, it is a wicked practice for church members to conceal the sin of other church members. The New Testament expectation is for church members to graciously hold one another accountable to repent from sin when it is manifested in their midst (Eph. 5:11-13). One of the most unloving choices a church member can make is to allow their brother or sister to continue in sin (Prov. 27:6; Eph. 4:14-16). From Keach’s perspective, the person who conceals the sin of other people is likewise culpable in that sin.


4. Cowardice of Spiritual Leadership to Address Doctrinal and/or Moral Issues in the Congregation

[Another cause of discord is] when an elder or church knows that some persons are scandalous in their lives or heretical in judgment and yet shall bear or connive with them.[14]

Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul provides the biblical qualifications for the office of Elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Upon surveying those passages, one finds that Elders are called to “hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). There is perhaps no occasion more important for Elders to function in this capacity than when doctrinal and moral issues surface in a local church. An Elder’s failure to carry out this biblical mandate is an unfortunate display of cowardice and spiritual negligence (Gal. 2:11-14; 2 Tim. 1:7-8).


5. A Lack of Involvement in, or Care for, Local Church Activities by the Majority of Members

When members take liberty to [be at] other places when the church is assembled to worship God (Acts 4:23): this is nothing less than a breaking their covenant with the church and may soon dissolve any church: for by the same rule, one may take that liberty; nay, every member may. Moreover, it casts a contempt upon the ministry of the church, and tends to cause such who are hearers to draw off and to be disaffected with the doctrine taught in the church. I exhort, therefore, in the name of Christ, that this may be prevented. And any of you that know who they are that take this liberty: pray discover them to the church.[15]

Consistent disengagement, or outright absence, from local church activities is a recipe for strife in the local church. In many cases, irregular attending church members depend on the rigorous labors of faithful members to ensure that church events can occur as desired. What’s more, if left unchecked, absentee church members can still influence the overarching direction and decision making of a local church (especially if they are wealthy or popular amongst congregants). Lest grave problems arise from such scenarios, contemporary Baptist churches would do well to heed Keach’s exhortations to hold absentee church members accountable (Heb. 10:23-25).


6. A Culture of Unsound Theology

The liberty that some take to hear men that are corrupt in their judgments; and so take in unsound notions, and also strive to distill them into the minds of others, as if they were of great importance. Alas, how many are corrupted in these days with Arminianism, Socinianism, and what not. This causes great trouble and disorder.[16]

Doctrine is the most important component of Christianity, because without knowing and understanding objective doctrinal truth, the entirety of the Christian faith is reduced to subjectivity and ambiguity (2 Tim. 1:13). Doctrine is also an inescapable component of Christianity because as soon as one begins to articulate what they believe about their faith, they have inevitably begun to reveal their personal doctrinal convictions (1 Pet. 3:15). Therefore, Keach’s counsel directs church members to ensure that the doctrine espoused in their congregation is faithful to Scripture, and is jointly embraced throughout the community of faith (1 Cor. 1:10).


7. A Lack of a Robust Church Membership Process

When one church shall receive a member or members of another congregation without their consent or knowledge: nay such that are disorderly and may be loose-livers, or cast out for immorality, or persons filled with prejudice without cause. This is enough to make men atheists, or condemn all church authority and religion: for has not one regular church as great authority from Christ as another (2 Pet. 2:2).[17]

In a world where roughly 2/3 of Americans believe that worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church, it would be an understatement to say that ecclesiological confusion is widespread.[18] Based on Keach’s observations summarized under this heading, the lack of a formal church membership process opens the door for virtually anybody to become a member. In the final analysis, the lack of guardrails for church membership will inevitably undermine the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of local churches, which are chief concerns of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:6-13).


8. A Culture of Widespread Partiality in the Congregation

When judgment passes with partiality, some are connived at out of favor or affection.[19]

The sin of partiality can be defined as valuing or devaluing another person based on external factors.[20] Partiality can be shown toward those of a particular ethnicity, socio-economic status, family background, or role in the local church. Given partiality’s ubiquitous disapproval by secular society,[21] how much more should Christians seek to extinguish all expressions of partiality in their assembly of faith (James 2:1-13)? Keach’s concerns about congregational partiality stem from its inherently divisive nature; partiality augments extraneous differences rather than facilitating unity around every spiritual blessing enjoyed throughout the body of Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Therefore, partiality must be mortified in the local church.


9. Churchwide Decisions Made Without Pastoral Oversight

[Another cause of discord in the local church occurs] when part of a church shall meet together as dissatisfied to consult church-matters, without the knowledge or consent of the church or pastor. This is disorderly, and tends to division; and such shall be marked (Rom. 16:17).[22]

There ought never be a scenario in which church-wide decision making occurs without the knowledge, oversight, and consent of spiritual leadership (i.e., the Elders). Moreover, when members have a desire to express concerns about their local church, the instruction of the New Testament should lead them to first seek pastoral counseling (1 Cor. 16:15-16; Heb. 13:17). There is no biblical basis for members to grumble about the church in secret meetings, especially at the exclusion of spiritual leadership (Acts 15:1-29). Such behavior is factious, and as noted by Keach, such behavior will yield strife in a congregation.


10. Unqualified Spiritual Leadership

Another thing that tends to disquiet the peace of the church is where there are any undue heat of spirit, or passion shown in the pastor, or others, in managing the discipline of the church. Have we not found by experience the sad effect of this? Therefore things must be always managed with coolness, sweetness of spirit, and moderation; every brother having liberty to speak his mind and not to be interrupted until he has done; nor above one speak at once (2 Tim. 2:25).[23]

In accordance with God’s infinite wisdom, the Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to provide definitive lists of qualifications for those who would serve in the offices of Elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and Deacon (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Thus, it is the joint duty of Elders, Deacons, and the congregation to ensure that the qualifications set forth in Scripture are being modeled by those presiding in God-appointed offices of church leadership (Gal. 6:1). Whereas Keach freely acknowledges how unruly members can lead to turmoil in the local church, he is equally clear in noting how unqualified spiritual leadership can wreak havoc on a community of faith (Acts 20:28-30).


11. Disclosing Private Church Matters to Non-Church Members

When any member shall divulge, or make known to persons not of the congregation, nor being concerned in those matters, what is done in church meetings…this oft times occasions great grief; and the disorderly person should be detected. Is it not a shame to any of a private family, to divulge the secrets of the family? But far greater shame do these expose themselves unto.[24]

From Keach’s vantage point, it is the responsibility of church members to protect the intimate details of congregational life. By virtue of dwelling in a fallen world, the danger of going outside the church walls with private information can open the door for unintentional misrepresentation at best, and gossip at worst (Matt. 15:18-20). As seen from the testimony of Scripture, and from the testimony of everyday life, few sins cause greater damage than false testimony (Prov. 25:18; Acts 6:11-15). Thus, inasmuch as it is possible to do so, Christians should be committed to keeping matters involving their local church “in house.”


12. A Culture of Indifference Toward the Spiritual Authority of Elders and Deacons

Another disorderly practice is this: when a member shall suggest, and seem to insinuate into the minds of other members some evil against their pastor, yet will not declare what it is; and may only be evil surmisings, and out of prejudice; and yet refuses to acquaint the pastor with what it is (Zech. 7:10; Rom. 1:29; 1 Tim. 5:19; 6:4). This is very abominable, and a palpable violation of the rule of the gospel, and duty of members to their minister. Such a person ought to be severely rebuked; and if he confess not his evils, and manifest unfeigned repentance, to be dealt with farther. Moreover, it is a great evil in another to hear such base insinuations, and neither rebuke the accuser—and so discharge his duty—or take two or three more to bring the person to repentance. If he deals thus by a private brother is a great evil, but far worse to an elder, whose name and honor ought with all care and justice to be kept up as being more sacred (1 Tim. 5:19).[25]

This twelfth “cause of discord” closely echoes what Keach stressed about church discipline (see above), but is distinguishable by its commentary on the specific culture of a congregation. Any local church that allows its spiritual leadership to be openly maligned or disrespected—without any fear of consequence—is a severely unhealthy community of faith. In fact, it is impossible for a local church to possess God’s favor if the congregation is not marked by a posture of revering and submitting to the spiritual leadership therein (1 Cor. 14:33, 40; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). As such, clergy and laity must diligently work together in order to prevent the strife that ensues from congregational indifference toward the authority of Elders and Deacons (1 Pet. 5:1-7).


13. A Lack of Intentionality to Train the Next Generation of Church Leaders

[Church discord will occur] when gifted brethren are not duly encouraged, first privately to exercise their gifts; and being in time approved, called forth to preach or exercise in the church. And when encouragement is not given to bestow learning also upon them, for their better accomplishment. What will become of the churches in time to come, if this be not prevented with speed?[26]

From the first century until the present, Elders of local churches have been entrusted with the privilege of identifying, training, and mentoring Godly men who would eventually serve in the office of Elder and/or Deacon (2 Tim. 2:2). The fulfillment of this commission requires Elders to be invested in the lives of younger men, in order that they will be equipped with sound doctrine and thoroughly vetted to determine if they meet the biblical qualifications for spiritual leadership (1 Tim. 5:22). As alluded to by Keach, it should come as no surprise to find repeated problems in a community of faith that is not intentional to raise up the next generation of leaders.



[1] “Benjamin Franklin’s Last Great Quote and the Constitution,” National Constitution Center, November 13, 2021,

[2] William D. Henard, “Conflict in the Small and Medium-Sized Church,” Great Commission Research Journal 8, no. 2 (2017): pp. 223-239.

[3] Henard, “Conflict in the Small and Medium-Sized Church,” 224.

[4] Samuel Parkison, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” Credo Magazine, October 23, 2018,

[5] Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2015).

[6] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 20.

[7] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 57-65.

[8]  Given the substance of chapter three in The Glory of a True Church, each distinct summarization takes into consideration all that Keach expounds in the 23 “common causes of discord” in the church. As indicated above, some of these points are repetitive and/or offer expanding thoughts on previous statements. Therefore, the reader is encouraged to compare these summarizations with the original content of Keach’s work on this subject.

[9] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 57.

[10] “Article 29: Of the Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs from the False Church,” Home (PRCA, March 18, 2013),

[11] Keach reiterates the importance of church discipline for alleviating congregational discord in points 9 (pg. 60), 18 (pg. 64), 19 (pg. 64), and 20 (pg. 64) of The Glory of a True Church.

[12] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 57-58. Keach reiterates the importance for believers to model self-sacrificial (Christlike) love toward one another in the context of the local church throughout point 14 (pg. 62).

[13] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 58.

[14] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 58.

[15] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 59. Keach reiterates the importance of the involvement by church members throughout points 11 (pg. 61), 17 (pg. 63-64), 21 (pg. 65), and 22 (pg. 65).

[16] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 59.

[17] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 60. Keach reiterates the importance of congregations practicing a formal church membership process throughout point 8 (pg. 60).

[18] See statement 22 of “The State of Theology,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed September 21, 2022,

[19] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 60.

[20] “Partiality,” Partiality | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, accessed September 21, 2022,

[21] Erick Erickson, “Skin-Colored Idols in Education,” WORLD Magazine, August 22, 2022,

[22] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 61.

[23] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 61.

[24] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 62.

[25] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 63.

[26] Keach, The Glory of a True Church, 65.

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