Church cliques are a sad reality for many congregations. Cliques, for the most part, appear to validate the reasoning of some who say they are not Christian because of so many hypocrites in the Church. Having personally experienced the effects of church cliques, I can testify to their malignancy. The cancerous effects of church cliques marginalize many members of the body, and in the worst case, will force members out. Those marginalized and lost members are thus vulnerable to false teachers and doctrine because they do not seek to involve themselves in a local church. This article will examine the characteristics and effects of a particular and fairly common type of clique that creates division within the body in violation of James 2:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:10. The article will also provide recommendations as to how you can deal with church cliques in your congregation.
A study by Balswick and Layne has revealed that there are generally 4 types of cliques within a religious congregation, which they call clusters: the Conjugal cluster, the Christian Education cluster, the Established Member Cluster, and the Prominent Member cluster. The established member and prominent member clusters are normally comprised of older, sometimes widowed members with long tenure at the church. While a group unto themselves, they generally don’t seek to create feelings of exclusion within the body. In my personal experience, the established members and prominent members have sought fellowship and interacted with all elements of the body.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the conjugal cluster as it is the form most recognizable and infectious. The conjugal clique is made up of married couples, and within this clique there are two sub-cliques of the husbands and the wives. In this study it was revealed that the members of the conjugal clique generally have low tenure at their church. Only one participant in their study had been a member for more than 20 years and 60% had been members for less than 5 years. Age was not a large factor for those in the conjugal clique as the range was comprised of people from their mid-twenties to their fifties. While the conjugal cliques are--for the most part--comprised of married persons, there is the possibility that certain single close friends will be included.
Interestingly enough, theological differences were not found to be a factor in clique formation. One possible reason for this is that those within these cliques generally have a very weak theological and doctrinal foundation. They are not interested in having the most knowledgeable or capable person teaching them--rather the most capable clique member. Bible studies are focused less on proper exegesis and understanding of the text itself, and generally the depth does not progress beyond the popular teachers of the day. The theology of these clique members, generally, is representative of the feel-good, narcissistic culture we see around us.
While Balswick and Lane differentiate between the Christian Education and the Conjugal clusters, this is not always the case in smaller congregations. In a smaller congregation, you may observe the members of the conjugal cluster also sitting on the C. E. boards as well as other committees in the Church. This is one of the most destructive characteristics of these cliques. They infect every aspect of the Church. C. E. boards infected with clique members devoid of solid theological foundations are a detriment to the discipling of new members as they are often the ones making the decisions on what Bible studies are conducted and what materials are used by teachers in the Church.
The effects of a church clique on congregations can be disastrous. One of the primary effects is that non-clique members, those marginalized and excluded, have significantly lower attendance. A chart from the study conducted by Balswick and Lane is very revealing.
The chart reveals another possible effect of church cliques. Those who are marginalized and isolated could fall into the hands of false teachers/doctrine or worse yet be afflicted and oppressed by Satan. These individuals are extremely vulnerable to spiritual attack. Satan can use false teachers to render these people useless for service or to inhibit their sanctification as believers. The apostle Peter teaches us in 1 Peter 5:8 that the devil prowls about like a lion seeking to devour someone. Who is easier to devour: a person surrounded and protected by others or one left by themselves? It is crucial that we, as Christians, are part of an edifying body of believers.
A third effect of church cliques is that they repel new believers who are seeking to establish themselves in fellowship. From personal experience, I have seen how the actions of a few have caused others to leave a church. Church cliques provide less opportunity for individuals to develop friendships, and churches who seek to attract and retain members need to provide numerous opportunities for fellowship. Daniel V.A. Olson writes, “Cliques develop, and newcomers leave because they feel unwanted. For newcomers, it may be hardest to make friends in “friendly” congregations.”
The first response must always be prayer. We need to lift up these individuals in prayer and seek God’s will to be done in the situation. Praise God for His sovereignty because as we are told in Romans 8 that He works all things for good for those who love Him. Many times these cliques will be lead by one strong alpha-type individual. Pray for that person particularly that God would open his or her eyes to submit to His holy Word.
Further response to a church clique must conform to the instructions given to us in the Word of God. According to Matthew 18:15, we first go to our sinning brother or sister and demonstrate their fault to them. This should be done in a spirit of humbleness and with love. Should the individual(s) recognize their sin and repent, then we have won that person(s). If the person does not repent, then you must present the case to them in the presence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16). This may consist of first speaking with your Pastor and/or Elders concerning the matter. You could request to have a meeting with the person or persons concerned where you would be able to discuss the issue with those in authority. Keep in mind that your Pastor or Elders may not even be aware that there is a problem. Oftentimes there are others who recognize the problem but fail to speak up.
Finally, if you are thinking of leaving the church you attend because of a church clique, seek the counsel of those you trust. The decision to leave a fellowship is not one that should be made hastily without any forethought. Pray about your decision and ask your prayer partner, if you have one, to be in prayer for you. Should you feel that there is no one you can talk to, you may always email us here at CARM.