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Sermon: Conflict And The Church Community

Acts 15:1-41


‘Moses’ by Ludie Cochrane on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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:

The Cantonese pictogram for 'listen'

The Cantonese pictogram for ‘listen’

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.

Sermon: Conflict In Action – Negotiation

Well, long time no see. I had a couple of sermons it seemed diplomatic not to publish here. I have also been dealing with the suffering and decline of my mother, who eventually died a fortnight ago. Tomorrow I come back from some annual leave and compassionate leave. Below is what I plan to preach.

Acts 15:1-41


Negotiation by Nick Thompson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Conflict is regularly in the news, and especially at present with the dispute between Russian and Ukraine over Crimea. We have a Russian President in Vladimir Putin who clearly wants to flex his muscles as if the Cold War were still going on, just with changed national boundaries. He can threaten both Ukraine and the EU with reduced gas supplies. We have lofty moral statements from British and American leaders, who of course would never contemplate illegally invading another country. Hopefully at some stage the sabre-rattling will end and negotiation will begin.

And we are not immune to major conflict in the church. I am thinking here less of the individual conflicts in a congregation when people upset each other, but more about the major arguments that happen across the wider church. The media loves to report on the convulsions of the Church of England over women bishops and gay rights. It mocks the church, because these issues seem settled in the wider society, and because the world just doesn’t understand the care and caution with which churches try to handle their disagreements, in an attempt to reflect the Spirit of Christ. (Or at least that’s the theory.)

Now you may think this isn’t so relevant to you, as a regular Christian who doesn’t get involved in wider church politics. But it does affect you. The decisions made affect you. The media coverage affects you. information is available at hand for you to have an opinion on these things, and they become topics of debate and even of division in local churches.

So let us look at Acts 15, where we come to the first major dispute for the whole church in her history. There had been small, local disagreements before, but the question here about Gentiles joining the People of God went to the heart of the Gospel. How did they handle their negotiations between parties that started out so far apart in order to come to a common mind?

Firstly, let us look at the content of the arguments presented by the differing parties. We have a number of authoritative sources to which the different campaigners appeal. They look to a number of different authorities that we still use today.

We begin by hearing those who want the Gentiles to be circumcised. They call on tradition: ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses’ (verse 5). This is what has been handed down to us, they say, and this is how we have understood it.

Next, when the apostles and elders meet to consider the issue, Peter addresses them using reason. He points to the way he knew God had accepted the Gentiles by faith and then says, ‘why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?’ (Verse 10)

After that, Barnabas and Paul give an account of their experience: ‘telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them’ (verse 12).

Finally, James speaks up and quotes from Scripture: he cites the prophet Amos and comes to a conclusion from there.

These are the four building blocks of Christian truth – the tradition of God’s people (that is, what has been handed down to us), the use of human reason in a holy and wise way, the appeal to experience in the sense of saying, this is what we believe the Holy Spirit has been doing, and finally comes the authority of Scripture.

Each of these plays a part in the early Church’s decision here, even tradition, which you might think they reject, given that the final decision goes against the traditionalists. But no, because although the tradition is changed, there is a sensitivity to those who value tradition in the letter sent to the Gentile believers at the end – hence asking them to abstain from certain foods and from sexual immorality (verse 29).

Reason is important, too. The old Sunday School song was not ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’, God wants people who will love him with their heart, soul, mind and strength. Provided we seek to use our minds worshipfully they will make a vital contribution. And that isn’t just for intellectuals: the one who uses reason in this passage is Peter, the former impetuous fisherman.

Experience counts for a lot, too – not in the sense that my experience always trumps your argument, but in the sense that we believe God is active and at work in his world, and so we want to know what the signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity are. That’s what Barnabas and Paul describe.

But Scripture is the ultimate yardstick. While it is too crude to treat it as ‘the owner’s manual’ or as a much neater and more systematic collection of books than it actually is, it nevertheless serves as the framework for God’s authority in Christ, and hence that is decisive for the Christian. ‘O make me a man of one book,’ prayed John Wesley. He used the other sources – reason, tradition and experience – but Scripture was the most important source of knowing God’s authority for him.

Secondly, we need to look at the method used. It’s one thing to talk about these four sources of truth – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience – and to suggest that Scripture is the most decisive for the Christian, but it’s another to put it into practice. You don’t have to be around the Christian church to know how this can go all wrong. Bible verses can be used insensitively, taken out of context and you can pick different verses that seem to support contradictory positions.

To take just one example I could offer among many, I recall being away on a Christian holiday, where one person joyfully (perhaps thoughtlessly) sang along to a song based on a verse from the Book of Malachi which says, ‘God hates divorce.’ The singer had no idea we had a divorcee among us, and still less of a clue that some of God’s displeasure at divorce was about the pain inflicted on people when relationships break down.

Add your own stories – I’m sure you have them.

So how do we use the Bible wisely in negotiating our way to God’s path for us when we are in dispute? The answer I was given when I was a young Christian was about always interpreting the teaching of the Bible in its original context. There is much to be said for the old saying that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’. The apocryphal story of the man who played ‘Bible bingo’ to determine God’s will illustrates this. He opened his Bible, stuck his finger on a verse, and it said, ‘Judas went out and hanged himself.’ Being rather unnerved about this, he opened his Bible elsewhere and again put his finger down randomly. The verse said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ All this could have been guarded against by taking the verses in context and not in this random way.

But even then, interpreting the Bible in context is not enough. It’s not even how the New Testament treats the Old Testament. Think about the Scriptures quoted by the Gospel writers as being fulfilled by the birth of Christ. They generally did not mean in their original context what Matthew or Luke take them to mean when they tell us about the coming of Jesus. ‘A virgin shall conceive’ was originally ‘A young woman shall conceive’, and referred to the coming of a ruler eight centuries before Christ.

But what those writers do there – and which James does when quoting Amos in Acts 15 – is that they interpret the Scriptures in the light of Christ. Amos could not have known that his prophecy about ‘the Gentiles who bear [the Lord’s] name’ (verse 17) had anything to do with faith in the Messiah and the observance of the Jewish Law. But James sees it that way.

And something like that should be our aim, too. When we are working out with other Christians what the way forward should be, and what the Bible above all is saying to us, we need to handle it in what one scholar calls a ‘redemptive’ way. We need to interpret Scripture in a Christ-like way. What does a passage mean in the light of Christ? How does this fit with the climax of God’s revelation to us in Jesus? These kinds of questions will be our method, rather than just thinking, what Bible verses can I shoot at my opponents?

And that leads us to the third and final element of Christian negotiation in conflict: attitude. One way and another, we keep coming back to this, and it’s vital. There is no gloating when the conflict is resolved in Jerusalem. The different parties have come to a common mind without there being any sense of winners and losers. Christian negotiation is not what the world calls a ‘zero sum game’, where victory for one side is balanced out by defeat for the others. It is a common pursuit of God’s will, even if we come from different perspectives – and we must all be open to the Holy Spirit changing us.

Furthermore, the tone of the letter from Jerusalem to the Gentile converts is what some Christians call ‘irenic’ – that is, peaceable. It isn’t a lecture from know-alls to know-nothings. Rather, it says, this is what we have concluded. We would ask you to do this, and we would advise you to do that.

The whole debate and the consequent letter are framed in humility, gentleness and grace. This is a group of Christians living out what Paul described about the humility and servanthood of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11.

And we need to aspire to this. It isn’t always easy in the middle of passionate debate, but it is vital that humility, servanthood and grace are the dominant tones of our conversation, even of our disagreement. It’s the lack of such things that leads to division and to the demonising of our brother and sister Christians.

For instance: while I’m not in this sermon going to talk about my views on the whole sexuality debate, I will just observe that it is one that could have been conducted in a much more Christ-like way in the church. When pro-gay activists label everyone who disagrees with them ‘homophobic’ or (in one individual case ‘morons’), then what hope do we have? When those who wish to preserve traditional teaching smear homosexuals with the idea that they are latent paedophiles, then that is just as bad. There are dreadful people and dreadful arguments on both sides, to be sure. But there are also people in both camps who want to preserve something important about Jesus and the Gospel. One party is concerned to welcome those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, the other wants to maintain Christian holiness. Both are important to retain.

Can we, when we are tempted to get hot under the collar ourselves about major issues, still retain that humble, gracious attitude that the church leaders in Acts 15 displayed? Can we make sure we are drawing on what each of the sources of Christian truth – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience – tell us? Will we give a priority in all this to biblical teaching, but do so in a way that is in harmony with what we know of Jesus Christ? And can we negotiate our differences in a spirit that is different from the combative, blood-letting approaches of the world – in a style that looks more like the character of the Lord whom we serve?

Sermon: Affirming Hope In Conflict

Conflict (Chess)

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ephesians 4:15-16

You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:

‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.

‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’

One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’[1]

Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’[2]?

Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.

So how can we approach conflict in hope?

Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.

And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).

Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.

What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.

So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.

And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.

There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”

So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.

If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.

You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.

Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.

But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.

How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’[3]. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.

Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.

Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.

Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.

Sermon: Accepting Conflict

We begin a new sermon series to cover the next three months this Sunday at Knaphill, and as you’ll see from the introduction, it’s on conflict and is loosely based on some Mennonite values.


Conflict by Marina Noordegraaf on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Romans 14:1-15:7

One of the things I’m pleased that today’s ministerial students are trained in that I wasn’t is in handling conflict. You would think that a college training ministers would include that one, knowing the level of disagreement and outright argument that happens in churches, but it didn’t happen in my time. It’s all very well coming up with pious desires that there should be no conflict in the church, but the reality is that it does happen and it needs addressing. The New Testament calls Christians to be of one mind and purpose, but we clash because we have different interests, different perspectives, different gifts, different personalities … and because, frankly, we are all sinners.

That’s why we are going to spend quite a while examining the theme of conflict. We might like to pretend it doesn’t happen here, but it does. We might think it shouldn’t occur, but it still does. And having had the privilege last September of going away on a week’s training course with an organisation called Bridge Builders that specialises in ‘conflict transformation’, I am using some material from them as the basis for this series. Explicitly, the material for this series comes from a group of Mennonite Christians – a tradition that specialises in peace and reconciliation. It is centred on a group of twelve commitments they made in their understanding of conflict and faith.

We begin with this week with the need to accept conflict. And we take this chunk from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes, in Tom Wright’s words,

‘the mutual welcome which … is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.’[1]

In other words, this is what the forgiven life in the family of God looks like. It is very much about what we do to avoid unnecessary conflict. We accept that conflict happens, because we are different and fallible human beings, but it is possible in the church to major on minors, and Paul gives us principles to hold us together in the face of our real differences.

Firstly, Paul calls us to accept one another:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. (14:1)

He gives two examples of conflict, one about food and one about holy days. Carnivores such as me might be amused to read of him saying that those who only eat vegetables have weak faith (14:2), but this is not a dispute about vegetarianism. It is about a debate that ran not just in Rome among the Christians, but also among the disciples at Corinth. It was about a prevalent issue of that time: meat sacrificed to idols. Generally, the meat you bought in the market had already been offered as a sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some Christians felt ‘strong’ about this and said, “It’s all right, the idols are really nothing at all, so although I wouldn’t worship them, there is nothing to worry about here, I’ll eat the meat.” But others said, “There are demons behind the idols at the pagan temples. I want nothing to do with that, so I will not eat meat.” Both in their way are respectable Christian approaches to the problem. Both reflect the desire to serve the Lord, as Paul goes on to observe (14:3-4, 6b-9).

And if that is the case, the different sides had no business in showing contempt for, or looking down upon, those they disagreed with. Whether to eat meat or to abstain, all sides were servants of Christ. Anything that elevates itself over the common commitment to serving Jesus Christ and divides us off from each other in doing that is not the work of God, but of the enemy.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand in our context when we look at Paul’s other example here, where some keep a calendar of holy days, and others treat all days as the same. It’s like those who keep saints’ days, all the Christian festivals, and follow the Lectionary on the one hand, and those who find none of that helpful. At the more extreme ends, it’s like holding Catholics and Baptists together, but you don’t have to go as far apart as that. Methodist to Baptist would do. Indeed, before she met me, Debbie didn’t even know what Lent was, because it was never marked in her home church. But would it be right for us to unchurch them or them to unchurch us? Of course not! It’s therefore wonderful to live in a village where the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics can run an Alpha Course together.

None of this is to downplay our differences, or our varying convictions. Differences exist, even within our traditions. So we as a church where many people expressed a preference for sermon series as part of Christian teaching find that one or two preachers in the circuit prefer to do all their preaching from the Lectionary. We have good reason for what we do, and they have good reason for their preference. It means it is hard to work in partnership, but we should by no means despise each other.

And just as that is true across churches, it needs to be true within churches. We need to commit to a level of acceptance of each other, whilst respecting our differences.

Secondly, and following on from this as the other side of the coin, Paul calls us not to judge one another. We are well advised not to judge others (14:13), because we shall be judged by God (14:10-12). I take that to mean a couple of things: one is that we should leave all judgement to God. The other is: what will God think of us if we have spent our time ripping other people to shreds?

But rather than just seeing the call not to judge our brothers and sisters as a mere negative command, what can we positively do instead of being judgemental? Paul has some ideas.

One is this: to encourage those we disagree with, we can choose to forgo our own rights. The meat-eater should not eat meat and upset those who struggle with meat that has been offered to idols, Paul says. That isn’t love (14:13-16). I do not have to spend all my time demanding my rights when the exercise of them will become a stumbling-block to others (14:13). I am persuaded that it is all right for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation, but I will not condemn those who disagree. I will not bring a bottle of wine with me to your house if you invite us for a meal. For the sake of Christian love, I will happily put aside my enjoyment of wine. On a corporate level, that’s one reason why I’m happy with the Methodist position that we use non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion. Our first positive step in avoiding judgmentalism, then, is to remove stumbling blocks.

Our second strategy to counter judgmentalism is to set out to edify others:

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (14:19)

Edification is the construction of an edifice. It is ‘building up’. Paul calls us to build up, rather than to tear down, which is what judgmentalism does. Perhaps we know that there is someone in the church with whom we have a problem. There is something about them that winds us up. We find ourselves thinking all sorts of unworthy thoughts about them. We may even share some of these with our friends – and may not even realise that we have been overheard. Could you set out to affirm that person, even bless them, instead?

An example of what I mean: when one of my cousins was going out with the young woman whom he eventually was to marry, his future mother-in-law made it plain to him that he wasn’t good enough for her girl. You can imagine what this did to my cousin.

But then he took a transforming decision. He vowed that every time he left his girlfriend’s house, he would say ‘God bless you’ to her mother. At first, he said it through gritted teeth. However, in time, the relationship thawed and became warm. It all happened because he chose to bless.

So I want to challenge everyone here this morning. Is there a person you despise? Is it someone in this church? Will you commit to blessing that person instead? Edification instead of judgmentalism makes all the difference in conflict. You still may not agree with that person. But that does not stop you blessing them.

Thirdly and finally in this approach to conflict, Paul’s word to us is that we should seek to please our neighbours, not ourselves, because this builds them up and follows the example of Christ, who did not set out to please himself (15:2-3).

By ‘neighbours’ Paul still has in mind the people we disagree with – those who eat meat sacrificed to idols versus those who don’t, those who very liturgical versus those who are more extempore in their faith. Our neighbours here are not those who are like us, but those in the family of God who are not like us. If our neighbours were the people who thought like us, then pleasing them would be easy. But instead, Paul lays down a challenge – seek to please those people with whom you are at odds.

Indeed, it is countercultural. We are taught, especially by advertisers, that it is good to please ourselves. ‘Go on, you deserve it,’ they say. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ said the infamous L’Oreal advert. But Christians are to please others, even and especially those they are in conflict with, those where they are risking a major fall-out.

What does this look like? Here’s another story. I once had a barney with a fellow minister. He announced an initiative which involved coming into the area where one of my churches was, and he didn’t consult me or the other church leaders in the area. I sent him a rather angry email, complaining that he hadn’t listened to the existing local Christians in that town. We would have welcomed his church as partners in evangelism, but were upset that they were coming in as if there were no disciples of Jesus already there. It had the potential to be a damaging row.

Yet however much we were upset with each other, we both wanted to put it right. He contacted me and invited me out to lunch at a nice hotel. He insisted on paying the bill. I turned up with a box of chocolates for him and his wife and children. We managed to talk through our conflict, understand each other, and find a peaceable way forward, because we both entered into that lunch meeting with a desire for the other person’s good.

What difference would it make when we disagree at this church if we were to set our arguments within a context of actively wanting the best for our opponent? I think the conflict would be transformed. I think the potential for resolution and reconciliation would increase hugely.

In fact, more than that: Paul says that when we bring this attitude to our differences, we bring praise and glory to God (15:6-7).

So let us accept that conflict exists and happens. Let us not cling onto forlorn hopes that we shall never experience it in the church. But let us approach our so-called opponents in such a spirit of acceptance, a rejection of judgmentalism in favour of edification, and a true desire to please those who antagonise us that a miracle of reconciliation happens, even if neither party manages to convince the other.

Yes, let even the way we handle our conflicts be a witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. And may God receive all the praise and the glory.

A Transformed Heart

Here’s a great quote:

A transformed heart is like a magnet set near a compass – it disturbs and realigns the direction of those it comes close to.

From a reflection on Psalm 51 on the Inspire Network.

Isn’t that just the problem – transformed hearts disturb others? Is this one (of many) reasons for conflicts in our churches?

Sermon: Conflict

Here is my sermon on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading.

Matthew 21:33-46

In the University Library in Cambridge there is an old, leather-bound book containing illustrations copied from medieval manuscripts. There are no captions to the pictures, making them like early cartoon strips, but it isn’t hard to work out what’s going on. At the beginning of one story a woman is standing holding a club, with her skirt for some reason sewn together between her legs. Next to her, a man is standing in a barrel, with one hand behind his back. Battle then commences. The woman clouts the man, while the man tries to grab the woman. In the end she ends up head down in the barrel, her legs (still chastely covered by her skirt) waving in the air. It all becomes clear: this was the way in which they settled marital disputes in the Middle Ages. If the husband got the wife in the barrel, he’d won the argument. If she clouted him into submission – or unconsciousness – she’d proved her point. [Source]

This is not a sermon about marriage! But it is a sermon about conflict. Some people run from conflict. Some try to pacify the situation. Others – like Jesus, in this reading – seem to say, ‘Bring it on.’

The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is escalating quickly. In particular, his overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple has proved particularly – and unsurprisingly – provocative. They have questioned his authority. He has confounded their questions, and then begun to tell parables that are pointedly critical of them.

Today’s reading is the second of three consecutive parables in Matthew where Jesus isn’t exactly subtle in exposing the shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds. What’s more, he says, this has been a pattern down the centuries.

And of course, he sees where this is going for him. The son of the vineyard owner will be killed by the tenants.

So how does Jesus chart the tragic story of conflict between God and the People of God in this parable? And where might there be both challenge and grace for us today?

1. Patience
The first theme of the parable is just how extraordinarily patient God is with his people. The landowner sends slave after slave after slave to the miscreant tenants. Eventually he even sends his own son. He gives them chance after chance.

And of course Jesus is telling Israel’s story here – how he formed them through the patriarchs, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Then, once they were in the Promised Land, God sent judges and prophets to them over many centuries. Even when they went into Babylonian exile, God sent more prophets to woo them back to him. But now the Father has sent his only Son. We’re talking about a feat of patience that endured around two thousand years. Some of us have trouble being patient for two weeks!

But this is the incredible patience of God our Father. How often have God’s people given him reason for despair or grief? From the golden calf in the wilderness to the golden cow of Christian materialism, he could have ripped it all up and started again with others. Yet by his grace he persists with his people.

We know, I hope, that as the Christian Church we can’t look down on the sins of Israel from superior vantage point. Whatever they did in stoning the prophets or even rejecting the Messiah, we have conducted Inquisitions and Crusades, and devised ways of flatly contradicting the Gospel while claiming still to believe. Time after time, the Church has trashed the Gospel, and yet God keeps using her.

And what about us as individual Christians? How many of us are aware of being failures in faith? Was it the going along with the crowd at work? Being as consumerist or materialistic as anyone else? Looking after number one, instead of caring for others first? Staying silent when God needed us to speak up? Gave into temptation instead of remaining self-controlled?

I imagine we’ve all been there. Some of us have assumed that at our time of failure, God would have given up on us. Surely he has rejected us? Or, if we are still in the family of God, we can never be of any use to God’s kingdom.

Meet the God of patience. He is the patient God, because he is the God of grace. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.

You may well have heard the saying that the only true failure is not the error, but when we don’t pick ourselves up off the floor and start again after a mistake. That is true in Christian terms. The Cross of Christ facilitates the possibility that in the mercy of God, we may get up from the ground, be dusted down by him and start anew.

Do not stay crawling in the dirt because you feel so bad about yourself. God knows the worst about you and still loves you. Let the crucified and risen Christ lift you to your feet and set you back on the road of discipleship again.

2. Judgment
You may have been surprised about that first point when I said that the parable had arisen from a context of conflict. And the parable’s tone is shocking to some. Am I guilty of misrepresenting the holy God as an indulgent grandfather who looks down upon misdeeds and says, ‘Ah, they’re just little rascals’?

There is a time when patience passes to judgment. Israel already knew that with her history of exile in Babylon. There comes a time when individuals, groups, institutions or nations have so set their faces against the purposes of God that he says, that’s enough. In the parable, it’s the outright rejection of the landowner’s son. It symbolises, of course, the rejection of Jesus himself.

I would hate to dwell on that point in the way parts of the Church have over the years, and turned it into persecution of the Jewish people. And not least because I once worked with a Jewish woman who told me vividly how she was called a ‘Christ-killer’ when she was a little girl.

But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have had no monopoly on rejecting him as the Christ. Do I mean atheist creeds and nations, as per communism? Yes. Do I mean other totalitarian systems? Yes, I do. Do I mean our society? In a certain way, yes. After all, as John White says in his book The Golden Cow, the difference between communism and capitalism is this: communism says only the material exists, and capitalism says only the material matters.

But this is more: judgment is not merely about ‘them’. It is about us, the church. In his first Epistle, Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. And when he says that, you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wait a minute! I thought we in the church were the forgiven ones. How are we judged? How are we the first to be judged?’

I think it’s something like this: God’s purposes revolve around his people – which, today, is what the Church is meant to be. However, just because that is his overall plan doesn’t mean that certain churches deserve to stay open forever, and that it’s automatically a crime if they close. The Church may be Jesus’ prime agent in the world, but no individual church has a divine right to existence. The gates of Hell may not be able to withstand the Church, but some churches will fail.

Now they will fail for many reasons, but one of them will be that they stopped taking Jesus seriously, and were judged. Oh, they mentioned Jesus. He was still in their hymns and liturgies. But he wasn’t central to the affections of their hearts any more. The church was being maintained for its own members, rather than to give glory to Jesus. Because glorifying Jesus means more than singing hymns about him. It means mission. It means holiness. And within that, the worship is an expression of the spiritual life that is going on the rest of the time.

Wesley said that Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness. If we were to abrogate such a fundamental Christ-centred duty as that, then would the Methodist Church have any right to exist? No.

3. Purpose
God has mostly fulfilled his purposes through people. So what happens if the people are put aside in judgment? In the case of Israel’s leaders, Jesus prophesied that God would raise up new leadership. That new leadership proved, I think, to be a bunch of mostly uneducated, unqualified, ignorant types. The apostles.

And if God can judge his Church an her leaders just as much as he can judge the leaders of Israel, then what will he do to fulfil his purposes? He will raise up new leaders and new churches. 

A non-Christian recently asked me the old question about why there are so many Christian denominations. I’m afraid I slipped into the ‘nice’ answer, namely that we agree on all the basics of the faith, but there are some things on which it’s OK to disagree: church leadership, sacraments, blah blah blah.

I think there are other, uglier reasons. They are to do with human pride, and also to do with God judging those who are refusing to take their Christ-centred mission sufficiently seriously. The Reformers were the sign of judgment on corrupt Catholicism. But the Baptists and Congregationalists were a similar sign on those Reformers who liked to stay close to state power. Wesley was God’s judgment on a moribund Church of England. The Salvation Army was on nineteenth century Methodism. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were judgment on powerless, lifeless twentieth century mainline Christianity. Today, emerging churches, fresh expressions, missional groups and new monastic communities are judgment on a wider church that won’t make a missionary engagement with today’s generations.

God will not simply judge, he will always find new ways of continuing his purposes.

What does that mean for us? I believe we need to lay hold of God’s patient mercy before judgment falls, and be serious about our Christ-focussed mission. All that we do and share needs to breathe the Spirit of Jesus.

That doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be overtly religious, because to the Christian everything is spiritual. It does mean, though, that we do everything to the glory of God, from eating toast at Sunday breakfast to bread at communion. Whether our gatherings have a religious topic or not, we are seeking to form community based on our life in Christ, rather than simply run a social club where the common interest is religion.

And most fundamentally of all, it is a missionary calling to make Christ known in word and deed. Our agenda is the mission of God. Not just mission as a task to be accomplished – those Jesus criticised in this parable had great missionary fervour, and would travel to all sorts of places in the cause. It is Christ-centred mission that shares his message of love in a spirit of love. We are those who are sent in the love of God to the world.

Now when we are consumed with things like that – rather than maintaining the club, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and when our business and property priorities are directed towards the mission of God’s love in Christ, too – then we know we are in the ongoing purposes of God.

Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.