Whenever I carry out pre-marital counseling with a young couple, I dedicate an entire session to the subject of expectations and communication. I do so, because of the way in which this prevalent and recurring issue lays at ground zero of many hurting and broken marriages. Relationships are strained or decimated by unspoken or unrealistic expectations. This is no less true of relationships in the church than it is of those in the home. We all have expectations about how others should act–some of them are biblically justified and some are…well, not. Even when our expectations of others find biblical support, we sometimes (or probably more often than not) hold them with unrealistic rigor. Those who respond in anger or frustration, when their expectations have not been met, are often the catalyst for deep discontentment and discord in the church. It is just as possible for pastors to have unrealistic expectations of members as it is for church members to have unrealistic or uncommunicated expectations of pastors and others in the fellowship. When we hold others to expectations that are unbiblical, unrealistic or uncommunicated, we are simply acting in self-righteousness and self-centeredness. Only the message of Christ crucified and risen can cure our hearts of this evil. Here are five areas to guard against when seeking to avoid allowing unbiblical, unrealistic or uncommunicated expectations of others to cause discord in the local church:
1. Guard against expecting others to serve you. This is foundational to everything that follows. When we get upset that others have not met our unbiblical, unrealistic or uncommunicated expectations, we are showing that we merely wanted them to serve us and our perceived needs. The Gospel is the remedy for this problem. Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). When we recognize that selfishness is sin and that the Son of God came in complete unselfishness to serve us by taking away our sin, we will seek to serve others rather than expect them to serve us. When we remember how much Christ has served us, we will be quick to serve others slow to hold them to our own expectations.
2. Guard against expecting others to always agree with you. Most of us have known what it is to get upset (whether we show it outwardly or not) when others didn’t agree with us on something that was a matter of preference. Many local churches have been ripped apart by divisions caused by members in the church who thought that everyone should agree with them on what music should be played, who should serve on a particular ministry team or with regard to building related matters. These are things that do not necessarily fall into the realm of biblical doctrine and should be approached with great humility and a willingness to yield on our personal preferences. When we expect others to always agree with us, we look for others who do and then seek to stir up discord together with them. When we remember that Jesus is the King of the Church who purchased His people with His blood, we will be willing to hold loosely to our personal preferences on non-doctrinal matters.
3. Guard against expecting others to do all the work in the church. It is easy to complain about things that we do not have or do not like in the church. However, a complaining spirit often manifests itself when we see things that we wish were different and then impose an expectation that others will take care of these things for us. When we do so, we are not acting as problem solvers, we are acting as problem observers. When we remember that Jesus calls us to use the gifts that He has given us for the building up of His body, we will seek to use our gifts–or to encourage others who might have a more appropriate gift set for a particular need–to bring about change for the good of the entire body.
4. Guard against the expectation that you have to forgive others if they have only sinned against you a few times. This is so hard for us to learn. This sort of expectation is seen in Peter’s question to Jesus :“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). One of my best friends recently said to me, “Most relationships can’t handle even 6 or 7 offenses. We are ready to write off others as soon as they have offended us once.” When we remember how much the Lord has forgiven us of, we will be quick to extend forgiveness to our brothers and sisters when they sin against us–even up to “seventy times seven.” This is vital for us to learn, but self-righteousness stands in the way of our learning it. The Gospel cures us of this sinful expectation too.
5. Guard against expecting others to get involved with particular causes with which you are involved. There are so many good and noble causes with which we could invest our time and energy. Whether it is involvement in an adoption agency, a right-to-life march, ministry in a nursing home or rescue mission or a cause that focuses on ending a particular social injustice, there is always the danger of imposing an unrealistic expectation that others should be involved in that with which you are involved. There is a world of need all around us, making it impossible for each and every individual Christian to be involved with every important cause. Rather than categorizing causes according to your own personal assessment or interest, it would be better to lovingly and humbly bring a cause with which you are involved to the attention of other believers in order to see who Christ might raise up to partner with you in it. We should ever be cautious of feeling as though we must be involved in something just because others in the church of which we are a part are involved.
Believers are called to be involved in the work of the Great Commission–sharing the good news about Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection to a lost and perishing world so that men and women might be saved, to care for the needs of the members of the church of which they are a part and to then serve the community in which they live and work. We must not impose an expectation that it is the responsibility of every believer in a local church to be involved in every cause that may bring about good for a community. While there are many causes that we might choose to give our time, resources and energy to in the culture around us, those criticizing other believers for not supporting certain political and social agendas are de facto criticizing the Apostolic ministry. Such an approach is often driven by overzealous adherents who seek to hold everyone around them to an unrealistic expectation. The Gospel sets the priority for the church gathered, as well as for the church scattered, and it would do us well to learn from the Apostolic example what that priority is for the church in the world.