Grace-filled living can over-come conflict in the church

We used to have a dog, Tasha, a nice, medium-sized black mutt, named after a Star Trek security chief, though she never lived up to her namesake. At our first home she lived in our backyard with a clear view of our backdoor. Whenever we opened it she would begin barking and pulling at her chain, always excited to see us. At our current home, Tasha moved inside onto the landing. Every time I came home she greeted me eagerly. There was no doubt in any of our minds that she loved us.

Some years ago Tasha died of good old age. Since the children wanted pets, we allowed two cats into the house. But cats don’t care whether we stay or go. None of them has ever greeted me when I come home. We think they like us, but we aren’t sure like we were with Tasha.

Nothing against cat lovers or cats, but I think we in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) ought to take a lesson from the family dog. Man’s best friend? Christians ought to be like that as well. In reflecting on the breakdown in relationships between congregations and their pastors in our churches (and the CRC is not alone in this), I have to conclude that love is often missing in our congregations.

In a recent Christianity Today issue, Andy Crouch wrote, “From online bullying to Twitter takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the West.” In February, the cover of The Banner, the CRC’s denominational magazine, asked “When did we become so mean?” Even in the pastor-congregation relationship there is frequently more bullying, shaming and indifference than love. These attitudes come from both sides. It’s easy to love people we like, but the real test is to love people we don’t like.

Replace gossip with prayer
Jesus taught that the greatest commandments are to love God and neighbour. This is not a sentimental, momentary love. Christian love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13 as without envy, boastfulness, pride or anger. Love does not keep record of wrongs nor delight in evil but rejoices in the truth; it always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. When we have conflict in our churches, how many of these aspects of love are illustrated?

Love is the antidote to all forms of selfishness and pride, which erode human relationships. When we love each other, prayer and truth replace gossip and slander. Hospitality is practiced as we listen to each other in an effort to understand and bless rather than beat each other up with our arguments and raised voices. Love demands that we seek each other’s well being.

Love must the primary dynamic between pastor and congregation. Pastors are called to shepherd their congregations – to care for them following the pattern set for us by the Great Shepherd himself. When frustration and anger dominate a pastor’s interaction with his or her people, the love of God is not visible. And congregations also need to love their pastors. When there is conflict, we need to ensure it does not dominate congregational life, nor make the pastor a scapegoat. Pay attention to all the good things God is doing and talk about these more than the troubles.

Vanishing grace
“John is clear: Jesus came ‘full of grace and truth.’ We’ve done pretty well with the truth part. But . . . let’s restore some balance” (Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace). Grace is an important dynamic of love, often neglected in times of conflict. Grace relates to our capacity to forgive each other’s faults – to clothe ourselves, as Paul says, with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12-14). Why is it that when we have conflict we discard grace like clothing that’s gotten too small? I was accused once of preaching too much on grace. When I consider my own heart and the state of the church, I can only conclude that I haven’t preached grace well enough.

Without grace we endlessly beat each other up; we continually bring up faults; we refuse to forget. Gracious people are humble. When grace envelops a congregation the people don’t expect perfection from their pastors. Rather, they easily put up with areas where the pastor is not skilled and find others to work in those areas. Gracious congregations are marked by people who are constantly pulling together, refusing to be pulled apart. Gracious pastors do not refuse to believe that people can change or project the sins of one congregation onto another.

Mad? Serve one another more
Another neglected aspect of love is service. Jesus highlights it as the chief trait of Christian leadership, which both congregations and pastors tend to forget when the other does not live up to expectations. It is a natural human reaction to distance oneself from someone who disappoints us. We begin to act superior and put the relationship on hold until the other apologizes and behaves. Congregations stop listening to their preachers and pastors stop caring for the sheep.

Yet Jesus tells us, instead, to serve one another. Imagine what would happen if, when in conflict, we deliberately increased the ways that we serve one another, especially the ones we disagree with. This will create open and safe places, in which it is possible to enter into difficult conversations. In such places we will not be looking for a scapegoat but a way forward together.

Pursuing love means that we submit ourselves to the searchlight of the Holy Spirit and allow the Word of God to test our motives and words. But it also means that we listen to each other and allow others to speak difficult truths about ourselves. Each of us needs to allow others to speak into our lives, to test the value of our motives and behaviours and to confess our sins. May God grant us such congregations!

There are many reasons for conflicts within churches, especially in the pastor-congregation relationship. The road to a better future will be difficult and complicated. Yet I don’t think we will make much progress if we cannot acknowledge that close to the heart of the matter are spiritual issues, most importantly our inability to live 1 Corinthians 13. As Paul says, this is the most excellent way. Like Paul, I am confident that Jesus has poured out his Spirit to lead us into this life of love.

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