Have you ever had your feelings hurt because a tight-knit group of people within a church seemed to make you feel unwelcome? How many time have people you know been hurt by the same thing?
As a pastor, I am always saddened by the existence of harmful cliques in a church setting. They are bad enough in a school or work setting, but they can cause even more harm in a church, where one of the themes of the organization is “Love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Believers must always be fighting against the tendency to be exclusive. There should always be an open door into your particular circle of friends.
In the world, it just isn’t this way. As portrayed on television’s Survivor, alliances are often made between groups of people in order to use the power of the group to one’s own advantage. The alliances are not formed because people want true fellowship with one another, or in order to point one another to Christ, or to help one another fight sinful tendencies. No, they form in order to leverage power and win a game.
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Cliques should never look this way in a church. The New Testament often commands saints in the church to show hospitality (Rom. 12:13 and 1 Peter 4:9, for example). Hospitality can be defined as the ability to overcome your loyalty to a clique in order to care for a stranger, or someone who is strange relative to your group. Hebrews even teaches this profound truth:
Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
In other words, open the door of your group of friends, and invite others in to truly participate. Get to know them and seek to love them, helping them find a spot in the circle. Don’t be stuck up, or suspicious of someone ruining your existing relationships, or jealous of the attention the “stranger” is getting. In a word, don’t be a diva (this includes guys).
In order to open the door freely and lovingly for others to come into your group, you must be content in Jesus. This is why cliques must look much different in the church than they do in the world. Christians must find their joy and contentment in the Lord so that they are not looking to find joy and contentment in a group of friends. Friends and circles of friends can never give you what God can. Those who trust in him, find their identity in him, and hope in him, will be much less jealous or suspicious when a new person attempts to breach the wall of the clique.
You Mean There Should Be Cliques in a Church?
You have probably noticed that I have not said, “There should be no cliques in church.” The reason I have not said that is because I don’t believe that. In fact, a church itself is a certain kind of clique. So is a marriage. So is a family. Cliques (when understood positively instead of negatively) are a natural part of human social behavior. By nature, people group off. We are designed by God to do this.
To illustrate, the Atlanta Braves baseball team is a clique, and a very exclusive one at that. I would love to be in that clique, but for some reason, they will not let me. Does it hurt my feelings? Well, a little, but I understand why I am barred from being a true part of the clique. If the Atlanta Braves decided to allow every middle-aged man who still had pipe-dreams of playing in the big leagues into the clique, it would be pure chaos. I’d love to put on their uniform and chat with the players in the dugout, but if I did, they would be the laughingstock of Major League Baseball. No, they must have an exclusive clique in order to be successful. So much of social life works this way, and it is just a tough reality.
A church is also a clique of sorts, requiring membership for a person to be included in the inner circle. Not just anyone is allowed to be a part of the group. Before a person can join, certain qualifications have to be met, like being a professing Christian and having been baptized (at least at our church). Hear this: not everyone is allowed to join, but all are welcome to join, so long as they meet the qualifications. There is an open door, but a person can’t just tromp right in. The church is an an exclusive group, but it is the most inclusive exclusive group there is!
And, of course, there will be groups of friends that join up into smaller groups within the church. People have a tendency to enjoy being around people who are similar to them. Men who have served in the military, for example, have much to talk about that the rest of us are oblivious to. Ladies who have young children have much in common and usually congregate to chat and share about their parenting experiences, while others not in that demographic must watch from the outside of the circle. These groups are not formed in a sinful way, but just happen naturally as we find people we have affinity with.
So I am good with the idea of groups of friends or small ministry teams forming, and I don’t think there is anything we could do to stop that process anyway. Thus, the problem is not in the formation of cliques, which is not evil in itself.
The real problem occurs when a clique goes bad. It goes bad when people in the group begin to use their clique to harm other people or other groups, or when jealous and suspicious feelings rise to the surface and dominate the group atmosphere. In short, cliques sour when childish drama rears its ugly head.
Instead of using their circle of friends to bless others, serve others, and show hospitality, some use their clique as a weapon to gain worldly respect and power. But that is essentially how and why gangs form! And inside a church, that looks sinister, terrible, and profoundly inconsistent with the Gospel. It often leads to bickering, quarrels, and fights. Even more often it leads to a cold war, where various factions don’t necessarily verbalize their anger, but all parties know that relationships are very cold between the groups.
As Always, Jesus Is the Solution
How can evil cliques be overcome in the church? As I have said, there is only one way. Groups of friends must encourage one another to seek Christ and his glory as the goal of the group. If a person in a group is causing childish drama, the other members of that group should tell that person to cool his or her jets. Instead of pouring fuel on the fires of jealousy and suspicion, group members must drive one another to the throne of Christ, where real soul satisfaction can be found.
Cliques will inevitably form, but Christian cliques must have an open door policy, welcoming new people into the group with love and joy. Don’t be deceived into believing that a new person will change the dynamic of the group negatively, and so you must keep them out. If you think this way, you are depending on your group for contentment instead of the Lord. God gives you a group of friends in order to use it to love and serve others, not lock them out or harm them.
In closing, I think we all need a good dose of Romans 12:
Romans 12:9-13 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.
14-16 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!
17-19 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.
20-21 Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.
In the next post, I ask and answer the difficult question: Is it ever right to exclude a person from my clique?
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