Sunday, 10 September 2017

Conflict in the Church

We can sometimes have a tendency to be a bit romantic about the early church. That is probably because we read passages like Acts 2:42-47: 
“[the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Just about every serious Christian I know wants to have a church like that. They are devoted to the teaching of the apostles, which for us is found in the Bible. They are also dedicated to the community, so they have strong relationships in the church. They even held property in common. They would sell things to help the less fortunate among them so that poverty in their community was eliminated. No one lacked necessities. They lived with each other rather than just knowing each other as acquaintances. Miracles flowed from their leaders, the Apostles. They knew God was with them. They worshipped and prayed together. They had communion together. They ate together, and their community seemed to keep growing. … Imagine being a part of a church like that.

What we usually do is we imagine that early church and we compare that image to the churches we are a part of and we start beating ourselves up. … We don’t study our Bibles deeply or often enough. We aren’t very dedicated to the community- We don’t really know each other’s stories, and we don’t really spend much time together. We aren’t as engaged as we could be in changing the practical living conditions of those around us- there is too great a gap between the rich and the poor even within our own congregations. The miraculous doesn’t seem to be very commonplace in our churches- Maybe there is something wrong with the spiritual life of our leaders, or something wrong with the way we worship, maybe we haven’t really given our hearts to really truly worshipping God. Our churches are usually shrinking and not growing- God doesn’t seem to be adding to our number day by day. … As faithful Christians we long to be a part of the church described in Acts.

No doubt the early church had amazing moments, but we should be careful about being overly romantic about that time. If we read through the New Testament we get a more full picture of a very human church. God works through it, yes, but I suspect that was often in spite of the messiness. We see Peter and Paul fighting about circumcision and how the Gentiles are to be included in this Jewish Christian movement. Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians because of numerous divisions in the church there- some say their spiritual gifts are more important than others, some have an issue with eating meat dedicated to idols. There’s even a guy in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. Similarly, Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to be written because of some people who were coming to the church and teaching them they have to essentially become Jewish before they can become Christians. So there is division there around how to deal with the Mosaic Law. …. It can make you wonder how much of the New Testament we would actually have if it wasn’t for conflict in the churches that gave rise to these letters.

So while there were beautiful and inspiring pockets of the early church, we have to be careful about assuming that every church was a utopia where there was no conflict. The early churches dealt with its own issues, just as we deal with our own issues.

Personally, I find that strangely comforting. We like to aim at that utopian vision from Acts, but it’s also good to know that we aren’t as bad as we sometimes think we are. God’s people throughout the ages have grumbled in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. We can be like God’s people who turn to God, then take God for granted, then turn away from God, then turn towards God when life gets hard. We can be like those who approached the prophet Samuel asking for a king so they could be just like all the other nations. God’s people have a long history of messiness.

Given the history of God’s people, we are going to deal with conflict at some point. We are going to deal with sin and differences of opinion and hurt feelings and just the messiness of living life together. I think it is comforting that this was not a shock to Jesus. Jesus knew it was going to happen so he gave us a way to deal with it. In our Gospel reading today from Matthew 18 we are given a way to deal with someone who sins against us.

We don’t usually talk about someone “sinning against us”, so I’m going to talk about being hurt by someone. However, “feeling hurt” doesn’t necessarily mean someone has sinned against us. It might be a misunderstanding, for example, but for the sake of what we are talking about let’s say we are hurt because someone has sinned against us.

When we feel like someone has hurt us we often react in a few unhelpful ways. We might suck it up and do the nice thing and try to forget it happened. It festers inside us, but we don’t want to create conflict so we don’t bring it up. We might even spiritualize it and tell ourselves that we have forgiven the person. … The other thing we might do when someone has hurt us is talk about it with all our friends, maybe we send out a mass email describing the horrible things the person has done. Maybe we post something on facebook.

When someone hurts us Jesus gives us a pretty specific method for how we are to respond. First, we go to the person and bring it up with them. If they don’t listen, then we bring along one or two others, if they still don’t listen then we bring it to the church. If they don’t listen to the church, then we treat them like someone who doesn’t belong to the church. … It is a pretty simple process.

When we are hurt by someone the first person we should go to is the person who has hurt us. Just the two of you. … That is not usually our first instinct. We want to tell our family, or our friends, but confronting the person who hurt us is uncomfortable and stressful. … Even if we were to talk to the person who hurt us, we usually want to wait until they come to us. We want them to grovel and apologize, and then we MIGHT accept their apology and forgive them. … But Jesus tells us that when someone sins against us we are supposed to go to them and confront them with their fault.

And what is our motivation for us going to them? The motivation isn’t our own healing, or some sense of justice… Our motivation is to regain our brother or sister. … Which means they lost, in some way.

We don’t regain them by coming to them and pretending we weren’t hurt or by pretending they did nothing wrong. The hurt is real and the sin is real and we only regain them when they are willing to admit that.

Jesus cares about the person who has been hurt as well, but Jesus often calls us to endure all kinds of wrongs as a part of living as disciples of the one who was crucified. Being wronged does not necessarily damage your soul. Sinning and not being willing to repent does great damage to your soul, so that person seems to be the one Jesus is concerned about. That person has put themselves in great peril. That person needs healing. That is the attitude we come to them with.

One of the Early Church Fathers St. Chrysostom (who lived in the late 300’s) once pointed out that Jesus does not say, 
“’accuse him’ or ‘take him to court’. He says ‘correct him’. For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick… be earnest toward his cure, not toward satisfying your anger and hurt feelings”. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 60.1).

Similarly, St. Augustine says, 
“If you fail [to confront him], you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. … for the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself” (Sermon 82.7).

We don’t want to ignore the person who was sinned against, but the assumption is that they are still in a good position before God and are able to endure wrongdoing because they are united to Christ. The person who has sinned has begun cutting themselves off from Christ and is the one in more danger.

That is the attitude we are to adopt when we go to someone who has hurt us. It will probably take time and prayer to get ourselves into the right attitude before we approach the person. … Usually talking to the person who hurt us (with the right attitude) is enough to restore the relationship.

If this doesn’t work and the person is unwilling to own up to the wrong they’ve done, then we are supposed to bring along one or two witnesses. … Who should we bring? Well don’t bring your friend who you’ve known since kindergarten who wants to tear a strip off the person who hurt you. Bring someone who was saw the situation. That way they can say what they saw happen. Or bring along someone who both of you respect. They might be able to bring some level of objectivity. You might find that you both need to apologize to each other. Maybe there was a misunderstanding that this other person can help identify.

If that doesn’t work then bring the issue to the church. We have a Corporation (made up of the Wardens and the priest) and a Parish Council that represents the church and acts on its behalf. The church leadership will then look into the issue and talk to those involved. It might be that a members of the Parish Council knows something that might bring clarity to the issue. Or maybe the person who has sinned will have a sense of the seriousness of what they’ve done since the church leadership is now involved.

And if they still won’t listen, then they have basically excluded themselves from the church by not being willing to acknowledge their sin and not being willing to work towards restoration of the wounded relationships. This step will make a lot of us squirm, but Jesus basically says we treat them like someone who isn’t a part of the fellowship- like a stranger.

So they are to be treated like a Gentile who was usually a Pagan that did not follow the Jewish God. Similarly, they are to be treated like a tax collector who betrayed their own people to make a profit for themselves while working for the occupying forces that were oppressing their people.

Now this is not going to happen over something small. This is going to be real evil in the midst of the community that someone is unwilling to recognize and seek forgiveness for.

Paul suggests this to the church in Corinth regarding the man who is in a relationship with his step-mother in 1 Corinthians 5. “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2). But what is the reason Paul gives- “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The idea is that the shock of not being a part of the community will help the person recognize their sin and seek forgiveness. It is for the person’s own good. We might think keeping them in the fellowship is merciful and kind, but if it keeps them in their sin and they are not willing to deal with it, then have put themselves in a place where their soul can’t receive healing because they are unwilling to admit they have a wound.

This was probably more effective when there was only one church in the city and you couldn’t just go down the street to another church where no one knows who you are. So this step and the motivation behind it can sometimes be more complicated in our situation.

This sounds very harsh. Treat the person that sinned and refused to listen to you like a gentile or a tax collector. It sounds like we turn our backs on them and refuse to have anything to do with them, but then we have to think about how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. The Apostle Matthew, who tradition tells us wrote this Gospel, was called by Jesus when he was a tax-collector. Jesus was primarily called to Israel, but he also worked miracles of healing for Gentiles and applauded their faith. After the resurrection he commanded his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all people. So, to treat a person like a tax-collector or a Gentile is to love them and go to great lengths to help them be restored to a strong and healthy relationship with God.

Sin in the church is a spiritual matter that has an effect beyond just the immediate people effected. The sin of Christians presents a particular image to the rest of the world- We have the label of “hypocrites” in our society because sin is often left unchallenged within the church. … Sin also effects the culture within the church. It changes how much we trust each other and how safe we feel with each other. So really every Christian has an invested interest in the sin of other Christians for a variety of reasons, including concern for the sinner. Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). We are all parts of that body and we have an effect on one another. If we stub our toe the rest of our body reacts.

I know a theologian and pastor named Gordon Smith who served a church where two people had a long standing feud that stemmed from a church split over 30 years before he met them. The two did not interact at all, but still came to the same church. They just avoided each other. On one level they might have believed that their issue was between the two of them and it was no one else’s business. But, he and others at the church were convinced that their feud was a sickness in the church that had a spiritual effect far beyond the two of them. Sin has an effect on the church that runs deeper than our individualism wants to lets us believe.

This process is really about radical love. How do we live a life of compassion for everyone around us, even when they hurt us? Can we love the sinner even when their sin burns us? … If we think about it from the other side, isn’t this exactly how we would want to be treated if we were the sinner? How would it feel to have someone genuinely approach you with compassion when you have harmed them through your sin? The church may not be a utopia, but if we learned to treat each other with this kind of love then we would truly be light shining in a dark world.


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