4 things every pastor needs to know about doubt
May we speak slowly and listen carefully, so that many souls be preserved by churches who abide by patient peacemaking.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20)
In the Bible Thomas gets a bad rap. In the face of seeing Christ’s death on the cross and not seeing Christ’s resurrection, the apostle, who previously volunteered to die with Christ (John 11:16), is unable to believe.
For a whole week this beloved follower of Christ is kept in the dark, and not until Jesus returns to the Upper Room does he believe. But when Thomas does believe—he offers one of the most illuminating testimonies of Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Faith is based on evidence
There are many lessons we can draw from Thomas’s delayed faith, but one of the most important is that faith is based on evidence. The Christian faith is not a leap in the dark; it is based on the evidential history that Jesus rose from the grave, walked on the earth for 40 days, so that he could teach his disciples about the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:1–8; Acts 1:1–8). In that time, Jesus revealed himself to 500 disciples at one time, before his ascended to heaven in the presence of his followers (Acts 1:9–11).
With respect to Thomas’s doubt, his request for the physical body does not deny his faith; it ensures his faith is placed rightly in the resurrected Christ. Even today, faith is dependent on the eyewitness account of Christ’s physical resurrection (1 John 1:1–3). Thomas did not have that yet, and thus his delayed faith testifies to the need for eye-witness testimony.
Temporary division can cause Christians to hear one another
At the same time, there’s second lesson to be learned from Thomas and his doubt. It relates to faith and evidence too, but it is not about believing the gospel but believing other believers. Until Jesus showed himself to Thomas, there was a division in the household of faith. Ironically, this is a division caused by Christ himself, as he revealed himself to his disciples at different times. But it is a division nonetheless, and one Jesus remedied when he returned to the Upper Room a week later.
Today, believers do not find themselves in the same position as the original disciples. For us, the gospel has come fully formed. Christ is exalted to God’s right hand of God, the Spirit has been poured out, and the New Testament has been finished. Hence, the transitional nature (which led to the temporary division between Thomas and the disciples) is not repeated today.
What is repeated are events in the life of the church where one member or one group come to see or understand something that others have not (yet) understood. This knowledge and belief may be a theological truth, a decision for ministry, or a situation of church discipline.
In such cases, believers may come to understand a doctrine or a situation at different times. Like runners traversing the same course, they may have different opinions on the race—not because they are on different paths but because they are looking at different sections of the course. In such instances, painful divisions can occur and tear apart the body of Christ. But unlike the division which Christ intended in the days following his resurrection, this division is not intended by Christ.
Or is it?
Could it be that God plans temporary divisions in the church that cause his people to learn how to listen to one another? Could it be that various churches or individuals have different degrees of theological understanding or practical wisdom on various issues? And could it be that God wants his people not only to be at peace, but to learn how to make peace with one another?
Indeed, if we listen to the Bible, we see that God’s children are not just at peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and one another (Eph. 4:1–3), we are to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). And pastors are to be the ones who lead in making peace in the church.
The pastor is to be a peacemaker
Truly, the pastor’s primary role is to study the Word of God and feed the flock with the Scripture he has studied. He is to pray for the people and to be with them in their many hours of need. But also, the pastor is to make peace among God’s people based upon the Word and prayer.
This peacemaking includes the right exposition of God’s truth. But it also means wisely interpreting situations in the church and helping the congregation to walk together through them. Such peacemaking requires patience, gentleness, and a great deal of listening, prior to speaking and making decisions.
The most obvious example of this kind of peacemaking is found in the multi-tiered process of church discipline given in Matthew 18. In his instructions on church discipline (all for the purpose of reconciliation), Jesus calls for concentric circles to address sin. He begins with individuals, then expands the process to two or three witnesses (elders perhaps), before bringing the matter to the whole church.
Without getting into all the scenarios Jesus’s words address, we see how concentric circles work in releasing information to the church: if the sinning brother repents at first, the whole church is not required. However, if unrepentance remains, knowledge of the sin must spread, so that the church can respond wisely.
In this process, wise pastors will proceed slowly. Likewise, the release of information will be one of the most important aspects of the process. Knowing when to extend the circle, so to speak, is both highly subjective and highly sensitive. Wisdom from above is requisite, as is the removal of man’s wisdom that innervates and threatens all church decisions (see James 3:13–18).
Complicating this decision making is the fact that information comes about slowly. Like Thomas and the other disciples, the sovereign Lord of heaven reveals things over time. Thus, hasty decisions should be avoided and actions should be given ample time to gather information. For just as bad interpretations of Scripture come from an incomplete knowledge of a passage, so to do decisions made without all the information.
This is where peacemaking pastors step in. While our age of instant reaction invites us to make immediate decisions, God’s ways are slower. Scripture describes church leaders as slow-moving shepherds, not fast-paced executives. Indeed, as James 3:17–18 identifies God’s wisdom, it says, “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere”
This kind of peace-making is not cultivated in the world, but it alone produces “a harvest of righteousness . . . sown in peace by those who make peace.”
In the church, this kind of wisdom is not just related to individuals either. Rather, if a church is going to grow in peace, it must have leaders who are willing to slow down, listen, learn, and speak when all the information is in. Indeed, difficult situations take time to discern and wise pastors will not make hasty decisions. Rather, as James 1:19–20 instructs, they will be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen.
Imagine what would have happened to Thomas if the other disciples had dismissed him within the week of his professed “unbelief.” Not only would he have missed the return of Christ to the Upper Room, but we would have missed his glorious declaration that Christ is Lord and God (John 20:28). Thankfully, the disciples were not hasty in their actions towards Thomas.
Again, this is why God may reveal information at different times in the church, thus creating division. Such division is not the final state of the church, but it is a necessary step for the church to learn how to make peace. Yet, such peacemaking will only occur, when God’s people slow down to listen, seek wisdom from above, and refuse to act upon their selfish ambitions with haste.
Faithful pastors must model this kind of peacemaking and teach the church how to pursue peace in God’s way, so that the whole church can become a family of seasoned peacemakers. When pastors lead in this way, the whole congregation grows in wisdom, righteousness. and peace that lasts. Yet, when pastors fail to pursue peace according to biblical truth, when they settle for expediency and the peace they can produce by themselves, the whole church suffers, momentary peace evaporates, and individuals—like doubting Thomas—are hurt.
Thomas wasn’t hastily dismissed—a good thing
Praise be to God that Thomas was not hastily dismissed from the Upper Room. His enduring testimony bears witness to the reality of Christ’s resurrection and to the way Christ is making peace among his people. May we, who shepherd God’s flock, learn how to make peace in this way too. May we speak slowly and listen carefully, so that many souls be preserved by churches who abide by patient peacemaking.