Tullian Tchividjian survived an attempt Sunday by dissident church members to remove him as senior pastor of the 2,500-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The daughter of the late D. James Kennedy, Tchividjian's predecessor, was among six Coral Ridge members who circulated a petition calling for the new pastor's ouster. Kennedy, who founded Knox Theological Seminary, a political advocacy organization, and several very popular broadcasting programs, served as Coral Ridge's first—and only—pastor from 1960 until his death in 2007.
With Tchividjian's hiring in March as the second pastor in the church's history, the South Florida congregation he founded —New City Church— merged with Coral Ridge.
He spoke this week with Christianity Today about the conflict at Coral Ridge, its impact on Christian witness, and his grandfather Billy Graham's advice on using the turmoil for God's purposes.
Conflict seems to be everywhere, from the debate over national health care to Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift on stage at MTV's Video Music Awards. Given the high-profile dispute at Coral Ridge, how do you persuade the world that the church is any different?
I'm not sure that the difference between the church and the world is the absence of conflict. We are all fallen people in a broken world. The difference is how we respond to conflict and how we recover from conflict.
My hope and prayer is that here at Coral Ridge, we will respond to this conflict in a way that demonstrates for the watching world the reconciling power of the gospel.
If you were an unchurched person reading about dissident church members trying to oust their pastor, how open would you be to seeing Christianity as the answer for your life?
Not very open. Francis Schaeffer once said that division inside the church gives the world the justification they're looking for not to believe.
This conflict ensued because those who had a grievance did not come to me or the leadership of the church, but they took it to the street. They did not follow Matthew 18.
As a result of not handling their grievance or their complaint biblically, conflict ensued and we gave the world the justification they're looking for not to believe the gospel.
I have every reason to believe that God has allowed this conflict to take place so that the way we recover from this will be a powerful demonstration of the gospel.
From a public standpoint, how do you go about discussing this controversy in a way that doesn't make the situation worse?
My commitment is to speak about those who opposed me in a forgiving manner, in a Christ-like manner. I will, by God's grace, do my best to take the high road, to not disparage anybody, to operate in a posture of understanding. Some of these people had only had one pastor ever. So that's going to be hard for some people.
So I am very much working hard to treat those who have opposed me the way God and Christ treated me.
Ninety-one percent of Coral Ridge members supported your hiring earlier this year. In the vote Sunday, 71 percent voted against ending the church's relationship with you. That's still a two-thirds majority, but how do you get back the support you have lost? Do you even try?
It's a bit misleading. Anybody who was registered as a member was eligible to vote. However, there were about 150 people who came on the day of the vote who hadn't been to this church since before I got here. But they had friends who were unhappy and came back to vote with their friends.
But in a church our size, my guess is, there are still 100 to 200 people who are not supportive of me.
How do I go forward? I keep pastoring the whole church. I keep shepherding the whole church. I keep preaching to the whole church. I keep leading the whole church.
One of the complaints was that you don't wear a robe when you preach. What do you wear? And why not give in and wear what the congregation is used to?
There are only a select few who say that. I wear a suit and tie on Sunday morning. I don't want a robe because I'm not comfortable wearing a robe on Sunday morning. Since there's no place in the Bible requiring a preacher to wear a robe, it's really a nonessential issue.
Another complaint was that you haven't addressed cultural issues, which seems to imply that you haven't preached Religious Right politics. Why not address cultural issues from the pulpit, particularly issues such as abortion, which you have called the Holocaust of your generation?
I think there's a difference between cultural issues and preaching politics. The culture is much more multifaceted than the political arena. If you include art, education, entertainment, technology, theater, recreation, then there are many culture-shaping arenas.
So I would say that all of my sermons are culturally relevant, but I don't preach politics from the pulpit.
I am an old-fashioned, expository preacher. I begin with a text in Scripture and I apply that text to my congregation on Sunday morning. If the subject of abortion or homosexuality comes up in a book of the Bible that I'm preaching through, I address it very plainly, very clearly, and I say about it whatever that text says about it.
For too long, I think, evangelicals have made synonymous the idea of cultural engagement and political activism. And that's very much a truncated view of cultural engagement.
Have you talked with your grandfather about this conflict? What would Billy Graham say about this?
I have talked to him about it on numerous occasions. His encouragement to me is simply, "By God's grace, I've weathered many storms just like this, and if you submit to what God is trying to teach you, he will make you wise and humble and useful."
In other words, don't become proud and self-righteous. Be teachable. And God will make you useful.
Don't become bitter, in other words. Allow even your most vocal critics, who may criticize you unjustifiably, to become tools in God's hands to teach you something. Emerge from this more of a gospel man, more of a God-centered man.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today earlier profiled Tchividjian in its May 2009 issue.
Tchividjian wrote about the church dispute in an op-ed for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which has published several related articles.
Tchividjian blogs at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church blog, "On Earth as it is in Heaven."
See more on church discipline in our full coverage area.
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