September 4, 2011
The Greek word that gets translated as “church”–ekklesia–shows up on only two occasions in the Gospels. Both in Matthew.
The first use of “church” we touched on last week–Jesus says to his disciple: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” This is a strong, powerful image of the church. And if you don’t know much about Peter’s story–if you don’t know the doubt and betrayal that is to come–you might come away from this first passage thinking that the church is destined to be a solid, unfaltering, force in the world.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” That’s the first use of ekklesia in the Gospels.
The second and final use of ekklesia is in this morning’s Gospel reading. Again, Jesus is speaking. This time, rather than focusing on the strength and power of the church, Jesus anticipates church conflict. “If a brother or sister sins against you . . .” “If.” The inevitable hypothetical. “If someone in the church sins . . . ”
If somebody in the church says something that offends you; if he does something that you believe harms you in body or spirit; if she presents a barrier between you and God in some way. These things happen within the church; Jesus knew they would.
The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; but conflicting theologies, combative personalities, different aesthetic sensibilities–these things can do a lot of damage to Christian communities.
We’ve all heard about, if not witnessed first-hand, the ways that poorly addressed conflict can harm a church community.
A friend I ran into at the coffee shop this week told me that there was a controversy over new tires for the church van that raged for weeks within his childhood church. When he went to get his hair cut, the stylist, who was also a member of the church, told him all about who was on which side of the controversy–who said what about who.
And I think I shared with you before about the woman–this was several years ago in a different church–who found a bottle of fingernail polish remover in her church mailbox. Doubtless a comment by someone about her bright red toenail polish.
In our own community, several years ago, there were people complaining to each other about the pastor long before the pastor ever knew anyone was unhappy with her.
Some of us have seen first hand the damage that can be done within a community when conflict is dealt with through whisper campaigns and back-biting.
Some of us may be prone to the opposite extreme of conflict management–avoidance. It is not uncommon for people to leave a church community just because they do not get along with someone else in the church. It’s easier to go away than to try to work out the differences.
So even as Jesus had proclaimed the truth of the church’s strength: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” he knew the truth of the church’s weakness as well.
Jesus knew there would be conflict within the church, likely because he was living with the conflicts among his followers every day. We can imagine some of the squabbles that broke out as they walked along the road together.
“Peter took my walking stick.”
“It’s my turn to walk next to Jesus.”
“But we had bread and fish for lunch yesterday.”
“Forgive us our sins.” “Debts.” “Sins.” “Debts.”
“Cessarea is this way.” “No, it’s this way.” “Well, if somebody would have just stopped to ask directions . . . ”
We can imagine some of the conflicts. There’s one we know about for sure. The disciples are walking down the road arguing, fussing. When they get to their destination, Jesus asks them what all the fuss was about. They won’t tell him, but he knows. They were arguing about who is the greatest disciple.
And so even as Jesus proclaims the power of the church, he makes no secret of the fact that this whole church thing is going to be difficult. Anticipating conflicts to come, Jesus gives his followers some pretty clear instructions. Which, you have to admit, is rather unusual for Jesus, who tends to speak in parables and generalities–like “love your neighbor.”
There is nothing cryptic or general about what Jesus tells his followers here about how to deal with conflict.
I think there are some preachers who just can’t wait to preach this passage. There are churches that thrive on backbiting, on gossip, on warped passive aggressive ways of dealing with conflict. This is not one of those churches. I actually had someone complain to me once because there was something they kind of wanted everyone to know about, but didn’t want to make a big announcement. So they thought they would just figure out who the church gossips were and tell them–but they couldn’t find the church gossips. They couldn’t get their news out without personally telling people themselves.
I rarely hear anyone say something negative to me about another church member. When someone has been upset with me or something at church, they have told me about it early on–before complaining to half of the church first. And, maybe most astonishing, you all do not seem to get easily offended. No one is too picky about the color of paint on the walls–we trust Roberta’s taste.
You all are really quite astonishing. If you haven’t been involved enough with other churches to know, just trust me on this one. Either I am completely blind and deaf, or this congregation is a few steps ahead of most when it comes to healthy conflict management.
Still, it never hurts to review the basics. So here is Jesus’ guide to managing church conflict:
Step 1: If someone in the church sins (or sins against you–depending on which ancient Greek manuscript you’re reading), go to that person in private and discuss the problem.
This serves several functions. First, it forces the accuser to be honest. Let’s admit it, when we complain about someone to a friend or spouse or parent, sometimes we exaggerate the wrong that has been done. (Or maybe that’s just me.) But if the offending party is there, we have to pretty much stick to the truth.
This private conversation also saves the accused from public embarrassment, and therefore, can prevent a defensive reaction.
And a private meeting between the individuals helps to preserve the integrity of the broader congregation. There is nobody being asked to listen to gossip. No taking sides.
There are times, of course, that going to an offending party alone might not be safe–either physically or emotionally. There are times when an offense is of a nature that church leadership should be involved. And, there are times when the one-on-one conversation does not lead to the desired results.
So Jesus gives us step 2: “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.”
This sounds a lot like the process of mediation. Sometimes we need help in speaking the truth in love; we need help to listen well. We need a witness; we need to be accountable for how we speak to another person–and we need someone to hear how they speak to us so that we can check our biased perceptions.
So you speak to the person one-on-one. You speak to the person with a few witnesses. If the offending party still does not listen, Jesus presents step 3: Take the conflict before the church body. This is not done lightly. But if there is an interpersonal conflict within the church that threatens to drive someone away, that’s a serious matter. The church body should be consulted in a healthy, formal way. The church community hears both sides of the conflict in light of Christ’s teachings; the church presents its collective wisdom in an attempt to reconcile all people to the body.
Only after these faithful attempts at reconciliation does the church let someone go. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is a point at which fellowship is broken.
This point of separation, however, is not a point we come to quickly or easily. And it seems to me there is some irony here: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” On the surface, for a first-century Jewish audience, this would mean to treat them as outsiders. Yet in the context of Jesus’ ministry, and considering that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may well have been a tax collector himself, we have to wonder what Jesus really has in mind here.
There may be times when a person chooses to leave the church community. There may even be times–in extreme situations of abuse–when a church community needs to ask someone to leave. Yet even to the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the door is never shut. The grace of God can extend.
So that’s it. That’s Jesus little Conflict Management 101 lecture for the disciples. And we know that the followers of Christ in every century will need this lesson. The church will face conflict after conflict after conflict. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the church is worth all of that effort. This church that is stronger than Hell yet somehow so vulnerable to the egos of those of us who make it up.
An article by pastor Lillian Daniel had quite an enthusiastic following among my pastor Facebook friends this week. In the article, Daniel says that sometimes when she flies, she confides to her seatmate that she is a pastor only to have to listen to the other person explain to her that he (or she) is “spiritual but not religious.”
You’ve met those “spiritual but not religious” people. They talk about finding God in sunsets, as if those of us who attend church have never thought of looking for God outside the church building before. They make up their own rituals and beliefs, because the ones passed down through the centuries are too stifling. They apparently spend a lot of time in quiet, peaceful places by themselves thinking about very spiritual things.
Well, we can all be spiritual sitting quietly by ourselves watching a sunset.
Daniel writes: “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.”
It is the community–all of us together trying to do and be church–that makes the journey frustrating and painful and hard. And it is the community that makes the journey worthwhile and joyful and possible.
We, together, are the church. We are prone to sin, mistakes, messiness. Conflict is inevitable.
We, together, are the church. Because where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us. And nothing, nothing, shall prevail against us.
Thanks be to God.