Friendly fire is an oxymoron. It is the shooting of soldiers by their own army. In the heat and tension of battle, confusion can reign and communications can be disrupted, resulting in casualties inflicted by an army on its own soldiers. It is very likely that the South lost all hope of victory in the Civil War when Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally shot by his own soldiers. Judged by many as one of the greatest generals in the history of warfare, he rode out to survey the field at Chancellorsville, VA on that fateful day in May 1863. As he did so, bullets shattered his left arm necessitating amputation. Eventually, days later, it led to his death. General Robert E. Lee commented that Jackson had lost his left arm, but that he had lost his right arm.
Closer to our times, it is estimated that as high as 30% of soldiers killed in the tragic Vietnam war died from friendly fire. What cannot be measured, however, is how demoralizing these events can be on those who continue in the battle. The grief over losing some to friendly fire can lead to divided loyalties, discouragement, and even to desertion.
The assemblies in Galatia knew something, as well, of friendly fire. Paul wrote that they were biting and devouring one another (Gal 5:15). James wrote of those who were going to war with each other; going beyond friendly fire to open animosity (James 4:1).
Within an assembly, a zealous believer can become critical of those who do not adhere to the same convictions as he might. Having never established a relationship with the other believer, his correction is viewed as criticism and is unproductive of change and leads to estrangement. Others place less “spiritual” believers under personal “discipline,” forgetting that the only discipline of believers is either by the Father (Heb 12) or by the assembly (1Cor 5), and never by an individual.
Differences occur over the understanding of principles, not over doctrine. An example can be seen in two believers who each hold tenaciously to the principle of separation. As one applies the principle to her own life, she decides that belonging to the local parent-teacher organization at her daughter’s school would be wrong. Another sister, equally exercised before God to maintain separation, decides not to become a member of the Automobile Association, even though she did join the parent-teacher organization at school. Each is convinced that she is honoring God in her decision. Failure to try and understand the other’s viewpoint may lead to a critical spirit and self-righteous attitude. The example may seem trite, but the cases could be multiplied.
It is inevitable that there will be differing views on the application of Biblical principles. Some of these very emotional issues in our day relate to versions of the Scriptures which believers use in their reading; reverence, as reflected in the use of Elizabethan English in prayer; and appropriate dress for assembly gatherings. Infractions by some are soundly condemned and the prevalence of the Internet and social media enable the condemnation to be circulated throughout the continent. Somehow, we have forgotten the truth of the autonomy of a local assembly and that local elders are those responsible to handle local problems. There may be occasions when elders will seek advice from others outside that assembly. Help can be given if it is asked for, but final decisions and responsibility lie squarely on the shoulders of the overseers.
When differences arise between brethren, suggestions can be made, an individual’s own convictions can be expressed, but control of a believer or servant of the Lord is in the hands of the local oversight of that assembly. This is truth we have been taught for decades and which the Word of God has taught for millennia (Matt 18:16, 17). The sad result of one assembly disciplining another, of forceful personalities intimidating others into subjection, or of forcing people to “judge the question” and to take sides, has left us a sad legacy of a huge division, to our loss, dating back to the days of John N. Darby.
The Word of God chronicles sad and tragic times when Israelite fought Israelite to the detriment of all. The weeping of Israel reflected their realization of how great the tragedy was (Judges 21:1, 2). “Civil” war is perhaps as great an inherent contradiction as “friendly fire.” There is nothing civil about war between brethren.
Younger believers need to be sensitive to the consciences of older saints, and in showing them honor, avoid anything which unnecessarily offends them. In like manner, older believers need to be patient and understanding of younger believers. Mutual respect and understanding is basic to Christian living. This mutuality of honor extended to others will go a long way in preventing and resolving assembly differences.
Internecine strife persuades no one and discourages everyone. It results in positions becoming entrenched and the creation of heroes and villains, depending on your particular view of the problem; minds are never altered from their positions.
We need everyone on board; no believer is dispensable. Each believer serving in a local assembly, each shepherd, each servant of the Lord – each is needed and valuable.
We can be guilty of friendly fire, and do it in the name of truth. We should never compromise truth. We must stand for and defend truth. What we need to carefully assess is if it is truth we are defending or our personal application of a principle.
We need to remember also, that how a point of truth or the application of a principle is defended, is as vital as the truth being defended. The Lord Jesus rarely used harsh language with His own disciples; scathing denunciations were reserved for hypocritical Pharisees. There were “gracious words” that proceeded from His mouth even when He needed to rebuke (Luke 4:22). He knew “how to speak” a timely word to those who needed it (Isa 50:4).
May none of us be guilty of biting, devouring, and consuming another believer; nor be guilty of leaving the remaining saints demoralized. The collateral damage is immeasurable!