No one likes conflict. Well, I should say no one in their right mind likes conflict. And because no one likes conflict, we have done a horrible job preparing people to deal with conflict. We live in the age of everyone gets a trophy, so people do not feel bad. Teaching someone that you will not succeed at everything you do has left us with a world that really cannot deal with disappointment.
When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor or a plumber. I thought it was sort of the same thing. My father was a plumber, and I saw what he did, but doctors got to wear white coats. As a child, we change our minds about what we want to be when we grow up; I am still trying to figure that out by the way. But I wanted to be a doctor; the problem was I am not very good at science, and it appears that science is crucial if you are going to be a doctor, well it used to be anyway. I was disappointed that I could not be a doctor, a medical doctor anyway I did become a doctor.
This seems to be an exceedingly tricky passage for us in the western Church to hear. We have been influenced by the Enlightenment Philosophy of John Locke in the primary understanding of the local Church is a voluntary association of autonomous individuals. This is even more emphasized in America with our rugged individualism without a sense of independence, self-reliance, and individual authority. We have seen this play out in these past months with people refusing to wear masks in stores so much that fights have broken out over it. People belittle others for wearing masks, and some are told that they need to rely on God more to take care of them.
But today, we come face to face with a passage about church discipline, not something that we like to talk about in our modern, 21st-century Church. Now I will make one correction to the passage read this morning from the New International Version of Scripture and add the words “against you.” The passage reads, “if a brother or sister sins.” But I like the version, “if a brother or sister sins against you.” The trigger here is against you. We do not need “sin vigilantes” going around calling people out for their sins, but if someone sins against you, that is a different story.
But to fully understand this passage, we need to look back at the passage from last week when Paul addressed the Church in Rome. Paul speaks of the Church as a place of mutual interconnectedness, where we are incomplete without the other, where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where the honor of one leads to the rejoicing of all. But it also means that conflict not only affects those involved but the entire church community. Where members are bound together as part of the body of Christ, the disunion between a few is the disunity of all.
Now, I am sure that this congregation has never had any conflict, right? Of course, there has been conflict; no community is immune from conflict. Conflict in Church can be painful and can cause people to leave the community. Sometimes there is an unrealistic view of what a church community is; after all, it is made up of humans, and conflict is very human. But somehow the Church is supposed to be above that, we are Christians after all, and Christians are supposed to love one another. What makes us Christians is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we address and resolve these issues.
As Church we are not supposed to have conflict as the world has conflict with yelling, slandering, gossiping, Tweeting, humiliating, or even, and scripture speaks about this, taking each other to court. But we are also not supposed to sweep everything under the rug as if conflict does not exist and put on the happy, smiling face as if to say all is well while hating each other on the inside. Jesus calls us to a higher task of reconciliation and provides a way to carry it out when divisions inevitably arise.
Jesus begins with dealing with the issue one on one, face to face. We honor each other by speaking the truth in love, and sometimes that truth and that love can be harsh, but the truth is the truth. We put our of whole selves into the process of reconciliation for our own sake and the sake of the community. I call this dealing with the situation at the lowest level. It has been my experience that most conflict can be avoided if we deal with things head-on and not let them fester.
However, there are times that this approach does not work, and we need to involve others in the Church, which should be available as s resource of discernment and guidance.
Now there is a danger here that this passage can, as it has in the past, be interpreted in either an individualist or legalistic way. When reconciliation is pursued in a community that places value on the interconnectedness of the body of Christ, then conflict can be brought to people in the Church. If there is no repentance and the conflict is starting to harm the whole body, then, as a last resort, it must be brought before the entire Church.
The final step will sound harsh, but the last step is to loosen someone from membership in the Church. This should not be done casually but only after much prayer and discernment. Some people will make conflict for communities, and the community needs to be watchful that one person does not disrupt the community. This is the speaking truth in love, and it is not easy. In one congregation I was in, two families had caused problems for years and ran the Church. When something would come to a congregational vote, all eyes would turn to one of these two families for approval or disapproval. They would hold “parking lot” meetings before and after the “official Meeting” to decide things. It finally came to a head, and they were told that they were welcome to stay in the community but that they no longer ran the Church. One remained, and the other left. It hurt the community for a while, but we were better off without them in the end. The point is if we handle these things as they arise, it usually turns out much better.
When we enter into membership in the Christian Community, we bind ourselves in covenant to one another with Christ as the head of the Church. We do not own the Church, nor is anyone head of the Church save Jesus Christ, and sometimes we forget that. We make decisions based on what God wants, not on what we want. We seek guidance from God through the Holy Spirit’s power when we gather as Church to make decisions even on such things as the budget and the other more temporal issues of church governance. A general meeting of the Church is no less of a worship service then what we are doing right now; it is an extension of worship.
The ministry of reconciliation must be at the heart of any Christian community. The Church has not been given the power to “bind” and to “loose” because the Church is always right, but because the primary language of the Church is one of confession, restoration, and reconciliation when offenses and divisions occur. This requires love above all else as we seek to call people to reconciliation with each other.
As we have learned during this time of the pandemic, the Church is not an institution or a denomination but anytime two or three gather together in the name of Jesus and live together in mutual interdependentness under the headship of Jesus Christ. This requires us to throw off our individualism, and we enter into a covenant relationship with each other as the body of Christ. It is not what is best for me, but what is best for us. As that great philosopher, Mr. Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Each person in the community has value just as each part of the body has value.
Yes, there will be conflict, it is inevitable, but it is how we deal with that conflict that makes us not only a Christian community but a healthy Christian community. Amen