The Civil War included complex personal relationships among the leaders and other soldiers. Just like church.
We who are ignorant of the realities of war might think it’s only about setting up strategies and taking the fight to the enemy and determining a winner. Church is supposed to be about the fight to bring glory to the Lord by sharing and living the gospel. Unbelievers turn from fighting Christ as enemies to loving Christ as His sons and daughters and serving as devoted soldiers in His church. But there’s often a lot more going on behind the scenes.
In the church, the good and the right involves following godly leadership and taking ground that strengthens the church for the Lord’s glory rather than for man’s glory. The worst in the church involves relational politics, human weakness and sin. At its sinful root, it’s about Power, Control and Positioning. It always hurts the cause, whether the cause is the church or a war’s battlefield.
Look at the relationship of three Union generals: Ulysses S. Grant, Ambrose Burnside and George Meade. It’s late July in 1864, three years into the war that ultimately would cost the lives of 360,250 Union soldiers and 258,000 Confederate soldiers. The Confederate army, which started the war with less than half the number of the Union army, benefited from the many brilliant generals who chose to lead the Confederate cause rather than the Union cause. By the summer of 1864, the Confederate force was significantly weakened but still dangerous.
The Union army wanted to take the city of Petersburg, Virginia, because it served as a rail hub that supplied the Confederate capital of Richmond and the Confederate army. The two armies maneuvered into positions east of Petersburg. Then came The Battle of the Crater. The Union and Confederate armies were dug in, the closest lines about 400 feet apart. A colonel under General Burnside birthed the idea of digging under the 400 feet that separated the two lines and packing the end of the tunnel with about 8,000 pounds of explosives. Then detonate the explosives to create a huge breach in the Confederate line, which would allow the Union army to flow through and ultimately take Petersburg and abruptly end the war. That would have been terrific for Burnside and his legacy. It would have been good for Grant, who was now the head of the entire Union army. It wouldn’t have done much for Meade. Power, Control and Positioning.
But there were relational and political problems among Grant, Burnside and Meade. Burnside desperately wanted to gain a major battle victory so he could redeem his reputation. Nineteen months earlier, Burnside let his 30,000 troops sit out the Battle of Fredericksburg, which contributed to the horrific Union defeat there. Meade rightly absorbed much of the blame for the Fredericksburg defeat, but he was bitter that Burnside failed to join the fight. Grant lacked confidence in Burnside, no matter how ingenious the tunnel plan.
Burnside sold the plan. Meade mocked the plan and argued for basic changes. Grant approved the plan, but ordered Burnside to choose a different division to lead the Union’s assault that would follow the tunnel explosion. The original division—composed of black men who had never been under enemy fire—had trained for the assault for several weeks. Burnside, unwilling to decide which of his other divisions would lead the assault, drew lots among his divisions. The lot fell to a division unfamiliar with the plan and led by a drunken commander. The division received no advance briefing on the plan’s tactics.
Of course, the thousands of soldiers under Grant, Meade and Burnside never knew of the behind the scenes maneuvering over Power, Control and Positioning that so deeply affected the results and led them to their deaths. The tunnel plan was executed, the explosives blew and immediately killed nearly 300 Confederate soldiers, creating a crater 30 feet deep, 170 feet long and 70 feet wide.
But The Battle of the Crater was a disaster for the Union. Many of the division leading the Union charge fell into the crater instead of charging around it. As a result, nearly 3,800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Many were killed as they struggled to escape the 30-foot deep crater. Two weeks after the battle, Grant removed Burnside from leadership and dismissed him from the army.
Power, Control, Positioning. Grant retained his Power, maintained his Control as he maneuvered himself and focused on Positioning the image of himself as head of the Union army. Meade maintained all three. Burnside lost it all, lost Power, lost Control, lost Positioning.
When Power, Control and Positioning take hold in church leaders, they focus on themselves and how to build themselves at the expense of other leaders in the church. They do things to one another that look less like the church of Jesus Christ and more like a competitive corporation or The Battle of the Crater. So their work is terribly tainted and hurtful . . . yet often is tolerated by Christ . . . for a season. Maybe a very long season.
The good and the right in the local church focuses on godly, sacrificial leadership to take ground that strengthens the church for the Lord’s glory rather than for any man’s Power, Control and Positioning. This is not a dreamy and unattainable La-La Land for the local church, but a real pattern set by Christ that we must constantly pursue.