“Finding Community in an Acrimonious World”
You would think that religious people would be the most caring, tender, understanding, tolerant people on the face of the earth.
And it is true that you will find saints in all religions who have an almost superhuman capacity to be tolerant, caring, and forgiving of others.
You will also find ordinary people who are more tolerant, caring, and forgiving than they probably would be if it were not for their religious beliefs and practices.
But within any religion you will also find belligerence, intolerance, attitudes of superiority, and distain of others.
Certainly this is true of the Christian churches.
Our religious lives concern deeply held beliefs and convictions. Our religious beliefs are also sometimes defenses that we use to protect ourselves from deep fears and impulses within us. Because of this, the potential for conflict and acrimony within our religious lives is actually stronger than in some other spheres of our lives that are either more rational or that we don’t care about as much.
James Glasse, who was president of Lancaster Theological Seminary probably 40 years ago, had a sermon that he preached over again and again across the United States. It was entitled “How to fight fair in church.” His thesis was that there was going to be conflict in churches. We weren’t going to do away with it. So we may as well figure out how to be fair, and how to live through it and grow as a result of it.
Conflict was part of the church’s life from almost the very beginning. Read the Book of Acts. It starts out sweetness and light. People shared all their possessions in common. Day by day they broke bread together and “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2: 46-7)
Then there is the story of Ananias and Sapphira who lie to the rest of the church about money and fall over dead. (Acts5:1f) That’s unpleasant but it really doesn’t disturb the internal peace and harmony of the church.
No, what profoundly disturbs the peace and harmony of the church happens in the 6th chapter of Acts. The Greek speaking Christians began to complain that their widows were not being treated equally to the Hebrew-speaking widows in the daily distribution of food. Ethnic discrimination, or the suspicion of ethnic discrimination, began to emerge within the church.
As the church became more and more diverse, peace and harmony became less and less the norm. Conflict intensified. Never again is the New Testament without tension and conflict. You might say, never again in human history is the church without tension and conflict.
When I read the letters of the Apostle Paul, I find three types of conflict within the letters.
Each of them needs to be handled differently.
You’ll find an example of one of them in the book of Philippians. Philippians 4:2-3. Paul writes:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind [to get along] in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel…”
Here we have two good persons who for some reason just don’t get along. Why don’t they get along? Paul doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t care. He values them both. They have made great contributions to the work of the gospel in Philippi. For some reason Paul doesn’t understand or really care about, they simply do not get along with each other.
Sometimes people just do not get along; even Christians; even good people. It is not the end of the world. It just is.
The important learning about this from Paul is that it is the job of the rest of the community to help two people who just do not get along to manage their tension, conflict and disagreements.
Conflict between two people in a congregation is hardly ever a serious problem unless the community feeds it. There are always malignant cells within our bodies. There are malignant cells within all of our bodies, but most of the time the healthy cells contain the malignant cells and keep them from growing.
There are always malignant possibilities within any collection of people and within any congregation. It is the job of the larger community to contain the potential for malignancy.
So Paul says to the congregation at Philippi: It is your job to help these two people manage their differences in such a way that they manage to get along.
Conflict among individuals and groups within a body is always the responsibility of the whole. Don’t feed it. Set limits on it. Focus on what is healthy and good, and it will not grow out of control.
That’s one kind of conflict in the church.
The second and third examples are found, among other places, in the Book of I Corinthians. I am so grateful for the church at Corinth. There is no problem any church in the history of Christianity has had that the Corinthians did not have first. They were a mess.
In I Corinthians 11, Paul is scolding the Corinthians because of the divisions, factions, and conflicts within the congregation.
In I Corinthians 11:17f, he writes:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. [You are a better church apart than you are when you are together.] For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you is genuine.”
Here is Paul’s first point. He doesn’t like division and factions and disagreement and conflict in his churches, but he recognizes that some conflict is necessary.
Good thing he recognizes that some conflict is necessary because Paul himself was always in conflict with other preachers and leaders of the church.
“There have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you is genuine.” The Greek word is “dokimos.”
“There have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you is dokimos.”
The old King James translation of dokimos was “approved.”
There have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you is approved.”
I think all these translations are skirting what Paul is really saying. They are trying to tone it down. Make it more religious.
Dokimos is based on the root word dokeo, which means to think.
The most famous verse where dokimos appears is II Timothy 2:15 which I had to memorize in the King James translation when I was a boy: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
I think the bluntest translation of dokimos is “right.”
I think what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 11:19 is that there has to be factions and divisions and conflict between Christians “for only so will it become clear who among you are right.”
Some conflict is necessary in order to discern truth. So long as our perception of truth is partial; so long as we see through a glass darkly; so long as we know only in part; we will need conflict and divisions and factions within the church in order to discover who is right and who is wrong about any particular matter.
Sometimes the conflict may be pretty intense. Read the Book of Galatians. In the Book of Galatians Paul has it out with Peter and Barnabas because when no Jewish Christians are around they eat and socialize with Gentile Christians and when Jewish Christians are around they keep kosher. Paul calls them hypocrites to their faces.
People are convincing the Gentile Christians that they should become circumcised. Paul says in Galatians 5:12 that he wishes those who were teaching the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised would castrate themselves.
Some divisions and factions and conflicts are necessary in order to find out who is right and who is wrong.
Some conflict just happens between two people like Euodia and Syntyche. It just happens. It is the job of the larger community to contain it and manage it and to help the people involved get past it.
Some conflict is necessary because it is conflict about real issues that matter and you’ve just got to live through it in order to discover the truth.
There is a third kind of conflict that Paul says is never okay within the church. This is conflict based on sociology.
This is what Paul is scolding the Corinthians about.
When you come together [he writes] it is not really the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. (I Corinthians 11: 20)
The Corinthian church was economically diverse. It was diverse in terms of class and status. There were affluent members of the congregation and there were members of the congregation who were slaves.
Communion was a meal. People brought food and wine, and ideally it was shared.
But what was happening was that the affluent members got there earlier than the slaves or working people. So they’d go ahead and start eating. By the time the slaves and working people got there, the food would mostly be gone. The poorer people would be hungry while the more affluent people would be drunk.
Communion was more interesting in the Corinthian church than it tends to be for us.
Paul says divisions and factions and conflict based on sociology are never okay in the church of Jesus Christ. It would be better to eat at home than to divide the table of Christ based on class or ethnicity.
And it was unintentional. The Corinthians never set out to divide the church based on class. It just happened.
Lots of division within the church based on sociology is not intentional. It just happens when the church is not attentive or intentional about being inclusive. So the sociological categories within the society creep into the life of the church.
Lots of time a church becomes exclusive not because people intentionally set out to be exclusive but because the exclusivity of our lives outside the church doors defines our lives inside the church.
One of the most important things we can do is to intentionally pray to become inclusive congregations.
Someone mentioned to me this morning that he has been experimenting with praying. One of the things he has learned is that he can not pray for something without making decisions within himself to change. The act of praying for something requires a change within himself.
The most important thing we can do, I suspect, is to pray for our congregations to become more and more inclusive so that we will begin to realize how we need to change in order to be fully welcoming to all…how we will need to become inside these doors from the way the world is out there.