Paulo Pinheiro is editor of the Portuguese edition of Elder’s Digest.

Roberto Pinto is the Uruguay Union of Churches Secretary.

One of the church elder’s most exhausting tasks is dealing with controversy. Some elders, however, do not care for nor are scared by polemics. They argue that there is little chance of progress where there is absolute conformity and no interest in improvement.

In truth, a healthy congregation that is united and always working on behalf of lost souls has the spiritual resilience to overcome tensions and conflicts. The leaders of these congregations are not alarmed by the possibility of conflicts that could morph into crises.

The word “conflict” comes from the Latin fligere, literally meaning “to fight as a team.” In his book Leadership Handbook of Management and Administration, James D. Berkley explains that when two or more people pursue goals that are not shared or when one person’s will clashes with another’s, conflict occurs. Berkley further quotes the book Church Fights, in which Speed Leas and Paul Kittlaus differentiate three ways in which conflict is felt:

(1) intrapersonal (restricted to one’s conscience), for example, “Should I wear this or that?”

(2) interpersonal (battle between egos); and

(3) substantive (dispute over accomplishments, values, aims, and beliefs). A specific conflict may be a combination of these types. Such is the case when discussion about something substantive (the argument between two department leaders over who is “doing” the Christmas program) generates an interpersonal conflict (someone’s feelings get hurt).

In immature congregations, people are often frustrated when their ideas are not accepted. They take this rejection personally, believing that resistance to their ideas is the same as rejecting them as people. Leaders, however, cannot run away from positive, substantive conflicts that emerge during the developmental process of a church. For example, church members might ask questions such as these: “What type of evangelism program should we have: 30 continuous nights of preaching or three meetings per week?” “What is the best time for Youth Meetings: Friday night or Saturday afternoon?” “What type of seats should we get for the sanctuary: chairs or pews?”

To achieve good results as they consider these conflicting subjects, church elders must act constructively. Leading a church while avoiding crisis is essential for the success of the church’s mission. In principle, doctrinal controversies (related to beliefs) have been the worst kind of controversies. During such crises, elders are wise to obtain advice from the church pastor or from conference leadership.

The Bible describes a case of doctrinal controversy in the apostolic church that started when some Jewish masters began to impose circumcision among new converts; the story is found in Acts 15. The apostles and elders who faced this controversy (verses 1, 2) did not postpone searching for a solution, nor did they behave like ostriches who hide their heads in the sand. Because they believed that the local church should be in harmony with the church in Jerusalem, they met with their leaders (verse 6). After hearing several testimonies, they concluded that the controversy had been started by people “with no authority” to teach the church about this subject (verse 24). The leaders decided to “elect some men and send them” as speakers to announce the “agreement” that had been reached (verse 25), and they considered that the final verdict “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” and to themselves (verses 28, 29).

Regarding that council in Jerusalem, Ellen White says, “The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The ‘apostles and elders,’ men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches. Not all, however, were pleased with the decision; there was a faction of ambitious and selfconfident brethren who disagreed with it. These men assumed to engage in the work on their own responsibility. They indulged in much murmuring and faultfinding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message” (The Acts of the Apostles, 196).

In general, when negative controversy occurs between church members, the elder always has two alternatives: to ignore the situation or intervene.

The following statements are taken from the Spirit of Prophecy and may be helpful when you are faced with a controversial situation:

(1) “As a witness for Christ, John entered into no controversy, no wearisome contention” (The Acts of the Apostles, 555).

(2) “But be not too ready to take a controversial attitude” (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 118).


(3) “We should be guarded, that the spirit of controversy does not control our discussions of the Sabbath school lesson” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, 27).

(4) “Do not present subjects that will arouse controversy” (Evangelism, 142).

(5) “Many dwell almost exclusively upon doctrinal subjects, while the nature of true piety, experimental godliness, receives little attention. Jesus, His love and grace, His self-denial and self-sacrifice, His meekness and forbearance, are not brought before the people as they should be” (Ibid., 163).

(6) “In most of the religious controversies, the foundation of the trouble is that self is striving for the supremacy” (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 71).

(7) “Let not controversy arise over trifles” (Mind, Character, and Personality, 2:498). (8) “None are to be forward or obtrusive, but we are quietly to live out our religion, with an eye single to the glory of God. . . . Then we shall shine as lights in the world, without noise or friction” (Sons and Daughters of God, 317).


If you lost control of a situation or cannot avoid or inhibit the propagation of negative controversy, do not behave like an ostrich or lose hope; rather, pray to God and ask Him for wisdom and serenity. Arguments are often caused by lack of communication regarding a specific matter. Therefore:

1. Listen, individually, to each person involved in the controversy. Be careful not to show bias or label people beforehand as being “problematic.” Be attentive to each explanation. Maybe some explanation needs to be given to the person. Praying with the person and asking God for illumination are essential for the conversation.

2. Be careful not to accelerate accusations or feelings of rage. Start the conversation on a friendly note, as far as possible from emotional triggers. Try to keep the conversation on a spiritual level. The objective should be to reach a satisfactory outcome that is in harmony with church principles and Christian ethics. Fear and offense are hardly ever beneficial.

3. Don’t rush. Prioritize a list of possible solutions, considering the positive and negative aspects of each. Pray for wisdom to make the right decision.

4. Consult with each party again to discuss possible solutions. Share the positive and negative consequences of each option. Try to reach a consensus between both parties, always in a constructive, Christian atmosphere. 

Paulo Roberto Pinheiro is editor of Elder’s Digest in Portuguese in Brazil.