A history of conflict

One of the challenges facing churches today is how members can discuss without rancour hot button topics. Potentially divisive discussions are myriad and can include topics like gender roles, racism, sexual orientation, environment, evolution, capitalism, baptism, pre-marital behaviour, church discipline, smoking, abortion, euthanasia, common-law relationships, illegal immigrants, ethical investment, justice toward aboriginal peoples, Sabbath observation, just wars, Christian day schooling and the pastor’s latest sermon.

Mortal battles have been fought over such an innocuous matter as the use of an organ in a worship service. I vividly remember a door-slamming discussion in one church we attended years ago over the placement of a recently purchased pipe organ. The choice was between installing the pipes behind the pulpit in front or installing them in the back just above the gallery. And I can still picture an elderly brother with a heavy Dutch accent standing up at a congregational meeting and addressing the chair as follows: “Mister sjairman. Ve haf not efen ggot sie orgel, but sie devil, she has bin playing it alreddy for strie veeks.” Up until that time I did not know that the Holy Spirit knew how to speak with a heavy Dutch accent, but now I know.

I have often wondered what caused such soul-destroying battles in our churches over non-essential matters.

In a recent discussion with two friends we touched on this harmful behaviour. All of us had first-hand experience of what damage such a combative spirit can cause, and we admitted that we ourselves were at times afflicted with the same disease. We asked ourselves why such a spirit all too easily took root in the midst of our immigrant churches. Apart from the reality of sin ever present in our lives, we came up with some interesting observations.

Roots of combativeness
1. The post-war immigration of Dutch families to Canada consisted of people who had undergone traumatic experiences during the Depression, World War II and the immigration itself. These immigrants had experienced great stress, which was still lodged inside them. This stress, never acknowledged and shared with others in an authentic encounter of souls, sometimes produced anxiety and outbursts of anger.

2. The people who immigrated were often used to large families where intimacy between parents and children was a rare thing. For example, they did not know how to say, “I love you,” let alone say, “God loves me.” Such lack of intimacy carried over into communal discussions.

3. They had never learned to say, “I’m sorry.” You might show regret by showering deeds of kindness on the offended person, but to utter the freedom-giving words “I’m sorry” required a tenderness that made them and others uncomfortable.

4. They had inherited a tradition where being right, especially in theology, was of the utmost importance. Being right was a badge of honour, and it preserved your status in the community.

5. They were afraid of being vulnerable. Immigration demanded strength and a posture of overcoming difficulties. Competition among immigrants and how well they were doing in this new land was not uncommon. Letters sent back to relatives back home painted a rosy picture of having arrived in the land of milk and honey.

My friends and I certainly did not think we had covered the field or that all immigrants suffered from the same disabilities, but we had tried to understand why some church communities had such a hard time agreeing to disagree. And we did so without judging the previous generation. And who is to say that a new culture of “niceness” in some churches is any more healthy than the previous head-bashing, door-slamming encounters of victims of the Third Reich.

So how do we get from where we started to where we should be as communities of faith? We would have to unlearn some of the bad patterns we inherited. This will require deep soul searching, maybe some counseling, certainly some authentic encounters with people we can trust. It requires prayer and a support community. As a way of practising ourselves into a new way of being and discussing we could try some of the following suggestions.

1. Listen to others attentively and sympathetically with the intent to learn from them.

2. State your own opinion, convictions or questions without portraying them as ultimate truths.

3. Avoid the goal of being right. Substitute the goal of being helpful.

4. If the intent of the discussion is to come to an action plan, be prepared to allow for compromise or postponement.

5. Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead you as a community into the way of grace and truth.

6. And memorize the fruit of the Spirit as a guide for a “fruitful” discussion: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Don’t you think it’s time to stop sie devil from playing sie orgel?
 

Author

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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