So we come to this passage for the second time in our series on conflict (which finishes next week). And this time we come at the story from a different angle. It would be nice for me to get out the sermon from a few weeks ago and repeat it, but not so nice for you!
This time, our theme is about the rôle of the Christian community in transforming conflict. The story features both leaders and regular community members, and various Christian traditions see the relationship between them differently.
So, I could introduce you to a friend of mine who was an Anglican rector. He told me once that he saw his task in the church as being like Moses, going up the mountain and coming back down with the will of God for the community to obey. It didn’t leave much room for the rest of the church family to discern the will of God.
And that was rather like the couple who joined one of my previous churches from an Anglican parish church, where the husband had been on the PCC, but had become disillusioned with a vicar whose attitude to the PCC members was, “When I say ‘Jump’, your only response is to ask, ‘How high?’” This husband was a man of strong opinions, and his face didn’t fit anymore.
At the other end of the spectrum are some Baptist churches, where their belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is so strongly combined with their convictions about every member of the Body of Christ having a gift that the pastor cannot lead at all. He or she is regarded as just one member of the congregation with a specific gift to offer.
Of course, the problem for all parties – as it often is with any conflict – is one of power, and if one person or group can gain or keep some power, then sadly it is not always used for the common good, but for personal gain and protection. What principles, then, will enable a Christian community to work through tough issues?
Firstly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a safe community. When the dispute flares up in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas end up in ‘sharp dispute and debate’ (verse 2) with those who want all the male Gentile converts circumcised. What proceeds from there in the discussion and argument in Jerusalem is a context where any person feels safe to make their contribution. People on both sides are passionate, yet both the traditionalists and Paul and Barnabas can have their say. There is no mud-slinging, and there are no so-called ‘ad hominem’ attacks where someone attacks an opponent’s character rather than their argument. ‘The whole assembly’ (verse 12) is involved, and the issues are thoroughly aired. Nothing descends to the juvenile behaviour of a Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The church doesn’t always behave as well as that. I have seen various forms of bullying in church life – or at least subtle intimidation – where it is made clear that unless you hold a certain view you are unwelcome. To do what the early church does in Acts 15 in creating a safe requires high levels of love and trust.
That is going to involve a lot of challenges to our attitudes and to our default reactions. How easy is it, for example, to think of our brother and sister Christians as our enemies when we think they are terribly wrong? I have sometimes listened to character assassinations and assaults on the integrity of other Christians at Church Councils and other gatherings. I knew a Church Council where members turned up each time, with some of them asking, “Who will so-and-so attack tonight?” And we may believe that people are doing things badly or standing for the wrong things, but we cannot allow the situation to degenerate like this – not if we want conflict dealt with healthily. We need to remember what Paul told the Ephesians in chapter six, namely that our conflict is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual forces. A simple remembering that we are sisters and brothers in Christ is one step on the way to creating a safe community.
Within that, we can resolve to think the best about the people on the other side of the debate from us. I confess I’m not always as good at this I would like to be, because sometimes I am searching in my mind for all sorts of hidden, devious motives that those who take a contrary point to me must hold. And while I am not calling for us to be naïve – remember Jesus called us to be ‘wise as serpents’ as well as ‘harmless as doves’ – there is a real case for believing that people have disputed with us for what they perceive to be good and honourable reasons.
Debbie recently went for a job interview at Christ’s College, Guildford. One of the things that impressed her was the slogan printed on every sheet of paper:
At Christ’s College everyone is special, made in the image of God and needs to be treated with respect.
That gets to the heart of the issue. That biblical approach is core to creating a safe community where even conflict can be dealt with in a positive, healing way.
Secondly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a listening community. When the apostles and elders meet to consider the question (verse 6), there is ‘much discussion’ (verse 7) before Peter speaks up. There is ample opportunity for all to have their say. That requires not only the speaking of the contributors from all parts of the community, but tenacious listening from the apostles and elders who are charged with making the final decision.
We have thought about listening earlier in this series, and I offered a definition that ‘listening is not thinking about what you are going to say when the other person finishes talking’. I stand by that, and I want to add some words to it this morning. They come from someone I met on my Bridge Builders course on conflict transformation last September. Chris is an Anglican priest who specialises in reconciliation, and he was on the course seeking further skills. On Friday, he put these observations on Facebook:
Take time and space to listen – I mean, really listen to the other person. Not just to rebut them or defend your self or your belief, but to understand what values are really motivating them and what their needs may be, regardless of agreement or disagreement. The relationship you establish will be richer for it.
It’s challenging, isn’t it? I think I said to you before that like many people, the first thing I want to do in a conflict situation sometimes is defend myself. To be an ‘undefended’ person is scary, but we have to listen in many ways to what others are saying.
The Cantonese word for ‘listen’ is one of those Chinese pictograms made up of a number of elements that contribute to a more complete notion of listening:
Some of us just listen with our ears, accumulating the other person’s words in order to establish the facts. This is important, but it isn’t the whole story.
Some of us use our eyes in listening, watching for body language that tells us things the person’s words don’t – sometimes even contradicting their words. This takes us further.
Some of us listen with our heart, paying attention to the underlying feelings of the speaker. This also helps the process in a partial way.
Finally, some of us listen with undivided attention. It’s so much harder to do that today, when we can be distracted by the portable computer that we call a mobile phone in our pockets.
It is indeed difficult to practise listening on all these levels. And not just difficult, it can be exhausting. But a Christian community that desires to see conflict transformed is one that will commit to costly listening. So will we seek the help of the Holy Spirit in order to become a community of listeners?
Thirdly and finally, Acts 15 shows us a growing community. By ‘growing’ here, I do not mean ‘numerical growth’, I mean growth in grace, development in faith. How so?
A lot of good things happen in this story. It starts with people causing trouble, agitating young Christians (verse 1, cf. verse 24). It is contained in a safe community where there is mutual acceptance and good listening, before the leaders (who describe themselves merely as ‘your brothers’) make their final decision, resulting in an encouraging and diplomatic letter to the younger believers in Antioch (verses 23 to 29). All should be well. The new church is glad, the messengers strengthen them and some of them are sent back with a blessing of peace while Paul and Barnabas remain to preach and teach (verses 30 to 35). Happy Ever After?
No. There is a sting in the tail. Of all the people you don’t expect to fall out with one another up until now, it’s Paul and Barnabas. They have stood together in this crisis. They go back several years: Barnabas supported Paul when others were wary of him. But now they have a bust-up over John Mark. Paul says John Mark has shown he’s not up to missionary work and takes Silas as his new partner, while Barnabas does still trust John Mark and continues to work with him (verses 35 to 40). From now on, Acts follows the Paul narrative, and Barnabas and John Mark disappear from view.
You could read this incident in more than one way. You could say that Paul and Barnabas have failed to learn the lessons of the Council of Jerusalem in transforming conflict. Or you could say that sometimes life presents us with situations where there isn’t simply a right answer and a wrong answer. The rest of Acts seems to vindicate Paul, with its remarkable stories of his subsequent missionary journeys. But although Barnabas and John Mark vanish from the narrative of Acts, they are not erased from Christian history. There appears to have been a later reconciliation. In 2 Timothy, attributed to the time just before Paul’s death, the great apostle says to his young lieutenant,
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
Not only that, we have a tradition from soon after the biblical era that John Mark wrote down the reminiscences of the Apostle Peter. We know that document as ‘The Gospel According to Mark’. Paul may have had a dynamic ministry after Acts 15 with Silas and others, but Barnabas’ decision to encourage John Mark, just as he had previously encouraged Paul, seems to be vindicated.
Am I just offering a history lesson here? No. I think this shows the early church in all its immaturity and imperfection, getting things right but also slipping back. However, there was the commitment to growth, the intense desire to go the right way and follow Jesus together.
I expect we can identify with that sense of imperfect community, where one time we seem to do things gloriously well and put a smile on the face of God, yet the next day behave collectively in such a crass, immature way that you wonder whether we are the same bunch of people. And when we do that, we hurt others, as well as making God weep.
The question for us, then, is whether, in the midst of all our failures and foibles, we can radically commit ourselves to growth in the life of the Spirit. The reality is that we are not going to be the perfect community where no-one suffers as a result of our foolishness. We will cause one another pain, however much we may want to be a safe and listening community. Let us not be under any fanciful delusions.
But are we willing to grow? That is, are we willing to repent of our sins and learn from our mistakes when we have hurt others? Are we willing regularly to examine our spiritual lives, and let others hold us accountable, perhaps in a small group? If so, then just such a growing community will more truly become a safe and listening community, where conflict is not only managed, it becomes an occasion for grace and for the spiritual transformation of those affected.