What separates divisiveness from “concerned” behavior?

We ministers can get too sensitive about people expressing alternative viewpoints. Perhaps with good reason. Those who do so are often the same who complain about everything…and often people don’t process their dissent well. They are overly harsh, or behave in a viral way, in an effort to infect others. A church’s ability to call out and correct this sort of behavior is going to be one of the primary factors in determining it’s future. All of this is true enough.

However, it seems to me that we must have some mechanism for people to voice legitimate concerns…and allow some room for people to continue to disagree without pitching a fit or being viewed with skepticism by all. How do we do this? How can we disagree Christianly in church? Obviously, Matthew 18 provides a guide for circumstances in which someone sins against someone. I also think it’s a good place to start for voicing criticism–though it’s not a blueprint for such a circumstance–a non-sin disagreement.

When someone comes to me with a sincere criticism, I try to take into account:

– The tone. Are the Fruit of the Spirit within 500 miles of this conversation? That goes for our tone as well.

– The frequency with which I hear from them. Is this just today’s special? If so, I need to avoid reinforcing their behavior by “hearing them out” unchallenged. A critical spirit dishonors God, and needs to be viewed and treated as sin. One way to unearth this is to ask, “Is there a track record of encouragement anywhere in this person’s “body of work?”

-Are they coming directly to me with this, or did I hear about it from somewhere else? If they come to me directly, that should be honored with an attentive listening. People deserve that any way…but especially in these cases.

-UNLESS, they are complaining to me about someone else. In that case, they need to be directed to that person first. Many Christians feel as though it’s their job to at least “listen” to whatever anyone ever says about others. The truth is that it reinforces that person’s immaturity and is unfair to those who aren’t present to defend themselves. One question to cut to the heart of this is to ask that person or think to yourself, “If so and so were here, what might they say you’re leaving out?” When I have asked that question, at least half the time the person revises their story–adding in crucial details that change the entire way a third party would view the story. At the very least, it makes them pause to consider the other person’s point of view.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re a minister, help us understand how you’d like to be approached with concerns. If not, help us understand how to handle concerns the best we can. Also, where is the line? When does it go from “concern” to divisive or damaging?