Family Quarrels — Conflict in the Church

20 08 2007

One of Marshall’s recent posts reminded me of a lectionary reflection I did some time ago on conflict. Yesterday’s Gospel reading where Jesus says “I have not come to bring peace but division” also brought it to mind. So even though it’s a bit out of turn in the lectionary cycle, I thought I would post it here.

Text: Matthew 18: 15-17

Dealing with conflict is never easy, especially within the Church. The Church is meant to be viewed as a bastion of peace and hope, a place where we can forget the troubles and cares of the world, even for just a little while, and rejoice in our worship of God and the fellowship we have with each other. But, the Church is something beyond the four walls and the beautiful architecture. It is made up of every person who comes to worship, it is the community of believers gathering, and even God is in the midst of us as we come together. There is a song we used to sing in Vacation Bible School with words that went something like, “The Church is not a building, the Church is not a steeple, the Church is not a resting place, the Church is the people. I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together.” Because the Body of Christ is made up of human beings, and human beings, no matter their intentions, are quite fallible, it is inevitable that we will quarrel with each other or suffer disagreements, or even worse, one of us may be engaged in behaviour that is not in line with how Jesus taught us to live. And here, we come to a passage where Jesus explains a way that we may deal with conflict.

Before we jump in and take this passage or we start to apply it to anything that may be going on in our own lives, it is important to know where Jesus is coming from and how he got to this topic. Immediately before this, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the flock that is well-tended and safe to find the one that is lost. The lost sheep never ceases to be a sheep, and in no way does Jesus imply that it is more or less a sheep than the others. In other words, it is still a sheep that is very much a part of the shepherd’s flock. To look at it another way, the Church is given the title, “The Body of Christ.” For the body to function in a normal and healthy manner, everything must be working smoothly and without a hitch. Everything has a place and everything is in its place, but the body is also an interdependent organism, just like the Church. The sometimes disparate parts of our bodies must work in communion and in concert with each other. So, what happens when something is not working properly? We go tot he doctor. If something is wrong with one part of the body, it will soon begin to affect other parts. Take a cold for example. Our muscles ache, we have a fever, we cannot breathe quite as well because we are congested …. the list goes on. Or a small cut, left unattended can get infected and become a festering sore. So, when something is wrong with us, do we cut off the part that is not working right in the hopes that the body will suddenly start working properly again? No. We seek healing through doctors and medications and continue to seek healing until the sickness goes away. When the Church is ailing or one part is not working right, we go to Christ, who through the Holy Spirit helps us to speak the truth in love to our neighbor so we may be whole again.

So what should we do then when one part of the Church is not working properly or if one of our flock becomes “lost?” Jesus, the Great Physician, gives us a three part prescription: 1) speak to one another directly, 2) gather two or three to confront the issue, and 3) treat the one who is causing the problem like a Gentile and a tax collector. Parts one and two sound very reasonable and are done easily enough, but notice part three: Jesus says that as a last resort, we should treat such offending members as we would a Gentile or a tax collector, who were very much unwelcome in the Jewish world of 1st century Palestine. So, does this mean that we just write each other off, walk away, tell them we’re not welcome in each others’ lives any more? We should always try and emulate what Jesus says and does, shouldn’t we? Of course we should! And how did Jesus treat such despicable and unclean and unorthodox members of society?

He had supper with them. He healed them. He reached out to them. He never gave up on them.

Jesus, being wise than we ever could be, realized that those who are lost need him the most. It is important to note that Jesus did not tell these people with whom he associated that it was all right to continue the way they were living. No, far from it! To the woman caught in adultery, he rescued her from stoning and said, “Go and sin nor more.” A tax collector became an apostle, one of the founders of the Church, and Jesus also called others to leave their previous lives and follow him. As Jesus heals, he also says their sins are forgiven. While he continuously calls these ailing members to repentance, he also continuously pours our his compassion and mercy on those who need it, not those who deserve it by the world’s standards. He keeps reaching out to them with unconditional love, mercy and grace so that they will be found and returned to the safety of the flock.

It is very easy to forget that Christianity is not about following rules and regulations set down in Scripture. Jesus states that the entire law of God and the sayings of the prophets can be summed up in two phrases: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, you see, Christianity, the path of following Christ is all about relationships: our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. There are ways we should live and there are truths that are unmistakable, but the heart mind and soul of these are bound together by the Holy Spirit, who guides us into perfect truth and perfect love.

St. John tells us in his Gospel that to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must be born again. Being born again is not a one time event. We as individuals and as a Church must be continually born again, to come to repentance, to receive healing for our self-inflicted wounds and the wounds we inflict on our community. A well-meaning evangelical once asked a previous Archbishop of Canterbury if he were “saved.” The Archbishop replied with great insight, “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.” As we work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling” (to quote St. Paul), we should also desire to see each other grow in our relationship with God. This is the spirit in which we should address conflict, where the ultimate goal is closer communion and interdependence upon each other as we grow closer in communion and dependence on God.

Our baptismal liturgy says, “There is one body and one spirit.” The Church is a living, breathing, growing organism, one that is flawed. How wonderful it is that at the head of this imperfect body is the perfect Son of God! How wonderful it is that even when we quarrel with each other, God does not call us to be right, but only to be faithful to him. With Christ as our head and in our hearts, we may rest assured that through healing, compassion, calling and being called to repentance, we will continue to live and breathe and grow into who has called us to be.

I am the Church. You are the Church. We are the Church… Together.




One response

25 08 2007

Beautifully propounded. And includes a reference to the story about Jesus and the adulterous woman, which is one i love for many reasons. “Let the one without guilt be the first to cast a stone.”

Thanks for sharing this, deferential to the lectionary cycle or not!

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