Living as an exile to Christian community grants you an interesting view of the inner workings. The two-year podcast expose of Seattle mega-church Mars Hill, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, capitalized on this. One of the more jarring quotes from then-lead pastor Mark Driscoll documented by the podcast was, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Dissenters were unwelcomed at Mars Hill. If you had alternate ideas about the traction, direction, or speed at which the bus was going, you were welcome to freely discuss those ideas with the other corpses killed under the weight of ministry’s momentum.
It’s been a particularly bleak time for dissenters in my faith circles. At a Christian university I’ve been keeping a close eye on, the increasingly derelict and faithless administration sent a memo to faculty and staff to cease a years-long protest against a particular university policy. In protest, students and faculty staged a protest, hanging flags and signs in support of their cause, a frequent strategy by campus organizers. Historically, this kind of protest would be tolerated for the majority of the day. Not so this time. Just an hour after organizers began, their signs and flags were in the trash. If the email hadn’t been clear enough, the message was crystallized now: dissent will not be tolerated.
At one of the churches I’ve attended semi-regularly for a couple years, the pastor from the pulpit made a claim about a political issue. They went on to say, “You may not agree with us (referring to the church as an institution stewarding this opinion) and that’s okay. I hope you stick around anyway. Church can be a place where people disagree. You can have a different opinion, but ours is rooted in God’s truth. You can disagree with God’s truth, but it doesn’t change God’s truth. God’s truth is the truth.” This is a softened, but (in my opinion) more nefarious translation of the two above sentiments. The pastor’s point at its most basic level was: We welcome disagreement, so long as the people who disagree with us admit that they’re wrong, and not only wrong but are rebels against God. I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear this from this pastor. They had expressed a similar sentiment to me in a private conversation.
In my most recent letter of dissent to the aforementioned university’s board of trustees, I explained why I continue to participate in a church I fundamentally disagree with:
We as Christians are called to lives of exceptional discomfort. In my Sunday suffering, in that brutal weakness, the strength and redemption of Christ is that much more apparent. Because I have seen and believe so fiercely in the revelation and healing that transpires in spaces of deep and poignant disagreement, I ask you to turn from the wickedness of censorship and authoritarianism. I believe and am witness to the power of leaning into the spaces that are most hostile to you. Do not hinder the Messiah who came, not to bring peace, but division.Excerpt from a private collection of letters
Dissent is holy and underutilized work. I want to be clear by what I mean by dissent because I’ve also worked in ministry, and I know that some of you just like to complain. Petty disagreements, anonymous complaints, hurt feelings of being asked to change your behavior is not dissent.
First of all, dissent is risky. Relationships are risky. Advocating for truth and being commissioned to work on behalf of the gospel message is risky. This means dissent requires you to speak from your chest. In Paul’s epistles, he doesn’t hide behind an anonymous letter or a fake Google Reviews account. He clearly identifies himself and provides an opportunity to correspond with him. He’s not here to condemn and be rid of; he’s here to support and convict. If the Spirit has charged you with a spirit of dissent, then you are sent in God’s authority and no human being can harm you. Say what you have to say in the courage of the daylight. Say it with your face clearly visible. Say it with a return address so that you can be patient and partnered in your love for a community.
Secondly, dissent is purposeful against patterns. Nitpicking is not dissent. Critiquing your pastor’s off day is not dissent, nor is mocking the flaws of human beings. When you are called to dissent, you are called to do so with humility. In Paul’s epistles, he doesn’t critique as though he’s a perfect practitioner of Christianity. Paul admits his failings and communicates that it is through God’s grace that we mend, not through human intentionality. Additionally, Paul does not hark on minor failings or one-time slip ups. He critiques a series of patterns which culminate into widespread failings on behalf of a group of believers.
Finally, in this brief exploration of dissent, we need to understand it as something that occurs from connected community members, not outsiders. If you aren’t willing to be a part of the problem-solving, your dissent loses its traction. The nature of Christian community in our Western world – a once or twice per week meeting of believers is not compatible with the nature of the early church, who lived and breathed and died together. Be slow to speak and be willing to help problem-solve.
Putting Dissent Into Action
Pastors/Church Leaders – Be receptive to the voices of dissenters in your community, and be humble in the stewarding of your flock. You are not the authority of your campus, your community, or your congregation. You are not kings of your earthly kingdoms; you are servants commissioned on the authority of the King. If you have become arrogant in valid critiques of the community you shepherd, then it might be time to put down the staff. If you feel the need to censor all protests against you, you are not unlike Pharaoh with his hardened heart. Keep humble and remember your place in the Kingdom.
One of you says, “I follow Paul.” Another says, “I follow Apollos.” Aren’t you acting like ordinary human beings? After all, what is Apollos? And what is Paul? We are only people who serve. We helped you to believe. The Lord has given each of us our own work to do. I planted the seed. Apollos watered it. But God has been making it grow. So the one who plants is not important. The one who waters is not important. It is God who makes things grow. He is the important one. The one who plants and the one who waters have the same purpose. The Lord will give each of them a reward for their work. We work together to serve God. You are like God’s field. You are like his building.1 Corinthians 3:4-9 NIRV
And yet, also be mindful of faithless dissenters whose only goal is to stir up division and negativity. Indeed, there are people in our congregations who moan and complain about everything, not because something is wrong, but because they want to be right. Jesus was killed, not by a government or a system of unbelievers, but by his closest friend in the betrayal of Judas. The Enemy infiltrates our communities to stir up division and cause doubt. Meet with your dissenters, and allow for open communication with your congregants, but test the voices and concerns they bring up. Not every voice is helpful, but not every critical voice is evil.
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.2 Timothy 2:23-26 NIV
Congregants – Do not sit like a sponge amongst the faith leaders around you. You should not be sitting here reading this blog aimlessly or sitting in the pews believing every word that is spoken over you. You should also not be lying in wait, looking for opportunities to critique or tear down the people called to shepherd you. But, you need to be aware of false teachers and those below reproach.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their debaucheries, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.2 Peter 2:1-3a NRSVUE
You should not believe your pastor because they’re your pastor. You should believe your pastor because you spend your weekdays in prayer and in scripture and your pastor is partnered with the Spirit in convicting you of what is being revealed to you. You are not an idle thing to be told what to do by someone in authority; you are equipped with the Holy Spirit. Your pastor has no special access to God. They have gifts and a calling which may have set them apart to lead you. This is the only thing that differs between them and you. Appreciate and pray for your pastors, but do not blindly follow them and confuse their authority with God’s. Do not believe anyone who says what the Spirit has told you is true is a lie. Do not let the voice of a human replace the voice of God in your life.
“Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.Acts 10:47-48 NLT
God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.Acts 15:8-11 NLT
My point is really, at its core, this: Be a people so rooted in the love of Christ, that your hearts breaks with the afflicted. Be so humble that the lowest among you can reach you. Be so surefooted in the gospel that you cannot be unmoored by the lies of a false and hypocritical teacher. Be of one body in unity that you may not be broken by petty quarrels, but if there is a sickness in the body, take it to the healer that you might be cleansed. Dissent to make peace and worship God with your own mind, not the mind of another.
Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).
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