Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, July 22, 2013

managing conflict, even when it can't be managed

Romans 14:1-13
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God. 13Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.

Acts 15:35-41
35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord. 36After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
            This is a sad story from Acts. Paul and Barnabas had been working and travelling together for years. Barnabas was one of the first leaders in the church to trust Paul after his conversion, and he paved the way for him to be accepted by the others. They’ve been to Jerusalem to make the case for gentile freedom in Christ. They’ve evangelized in Antioch and throughout the Mediterranean world. They have been through a lot together.

            But now they’re arguing about whom to take with them on their journey, and that argument sends them off in different directions. Just hearing the passage, you know almost as much as I do about the conflict, because the Bible doesn’t say much more. All we really know is that these two friends argued, and that argument led them to go their separate ways. We don’t hear much more about Barnabas, but in later letters Paul mentions both Barnabas and John Mark favorably, so this conflict doesn’t destroy their love for each other.

             This passage is important because conflict happens. It happens in the church, even with mature, faithful leaders. Conflict is part of life and part of any important thing we do, especially when change is involved. It is OK to disagree about things. It’s OK to have different opinions in the church; that actually makes us stronger, as long as we can disagree with love and honesty.

Conflict is challenging because we believe what we believe because we think it’s true. That usually means if someone believes something different, our first instinct is to think they are wrong. If the issue we disagree about is important, it’s easy to worry that going the wrong way will seriously damage the church. As the conflict continues, it’s easy to think of the person we disagree with mostly in terms of our conflict, so that they become an opponent instead of a person. When we think about a conflict that way a basic conflict about an issue becomes a personal conflict that can easily get out of control with very destructive consequences for the community.

            On the other hand, if we approach conflict with humility, love and respect, we can learn from each other. A big part of working through conflict is remembering that the person we are having a conflict with is a person like we are. We are each more than whatever the idea is that we disagree about. Regardless of what we disagree about, we agree on a lot and we share our common humanity. We each have feelings and hopes and fears.

A big part of working through a conflict is being able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We can discuss an issue productively if we can understand why the other person thinks what they think. Most of the time when we approach it with that mindset, we can work the conflict out. Often we won’t change our minds, but we can understand each other and put the conflict in the context of our wider sharing, so the community can move on.

Another important part of resolving conflict is trusting God and remembering that our salvation and faithfulness do not depend on what we think or decide about any question or controversy. We are saved by God’s grace, and our identity is given to us as children of God. No conflict in the church can take that away from us, so we don’t need to be afraid of losing our faith because we disagree.

My hope for this church is that we can be a community that welcomes diverse beliefs and opinions. I want everyone to be comfortable sharing their opinions knowing that others might not agree, but will still accept, respect and love them regardless.

I want to be open about what I believe and I want you to be open as well. It’s OK if we believe different things. I will respect your beliefs and listen when you express them. I need to trust that you will tell me if anything I’m doing makes you feel uncomfortable or like your beliefs are being threatened. The only conflicts we can’t address are the ones we hide, and we all have a role to play in making this a safe place for faith to grow.

            That’s all pretty theoretical, so let’s bring that back to earth by talking through an example. We’ll start with a really simple conflict as a warm up. Let’s imagine we want to change the carpet in the sanctuary. One person suggests replacing the carpet with a new red carpet like the one we have; another person argues that it would be better to take the carpet out entirely and leave the wood floor instead.

            What are some reasons new carpet might be a great idea?

            OK, what are some reasons to go with wood instead?

            What other perspectives might people have on this question?

            What other factors might play a role in this discussion beneath the surface?

Do you see any ways this conflict could become destructive to the community?

            How would you manage that as a member of the community who wants to keep the congregation healthy?

            What would be some signs the congregation had resolved the conflict successfully?

What would be some signs the conflict hadn’t really been resolved 5 years later?

            Any other thoughts?

            OK, let’s take a look at a harder conflict in the church: the debate over homosexuality. Let me start by saying this is a sermon about conflict with sexuality as an example. It’s not a sermon about homosexuality; maybe we’ll do that another week.

This is a conversation that has been challenging for congregations and the denomination as a whole. It’s especially challenging because opinions often divide along some of the same lines as many other conflicts in our nation’s “culture wars.” Many of our disagreements in the church and in society are seen as liberal versus conservative, which makes it easier to see each other as enemies and harder to see each other as brothers and sisters.

            In the wider society most of the debate focuses on marriage equality. In the church there have been two main issues for debate. The first is whether the church will ordain lesbians, gay men and transgendered people as elders, deacons and pastors. The other main area of conflict is around whether the denomination will allow same sex marriage. Right now we do ordain LGBT people and we do not permit same sex marriage.

            We’re not going to resolve this conflict today, but we are going to talk through it as an example of significant conflict. So, in a spirit of love, what are some reasons why the church should ordain LGBT folks?

            What are some reasons the church should not?

            What are some reasons the church should allow same sex marriage?

            What are some reasons the church should not allow same sex marriage?

            What might make these questions especially threatening for people who oppose same sex marriage?

            What makes these questions threatening for people who support same sex marriage?

            How would you feel about this debate if you were gay?

            What might keep you from putting yourself in the other “side’s” shoes?

            What else is involved in this conflict?

            What could make this conflict destructive for a church or denomination?

            How could this conflict help the church grow and model Christ’s love to the world?

            Great work. As you see, if we talk through something like that it helps us put ourself in the other person’s shoes and understand why they believe something different from what we believe. I’m not going to ask you what you think is the right decision for the church or how we should approach it. We can talk about that another time. Our focus today is how the church handles conflict, both how we usually do handle conflict and how we should handle conflict.

            In our denomination right now many Presbyterian churches feel like the denomination is drifting to the left theologically and politically. Some conservative churches and pastors feel like their conscience is calling them to leave the denomination for one of our more conservative cousins, usually the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. One of the churches in our presbytery left the denomination two months ago.

            The story in the Bible these leaders usually point to is the story of Paul and Barnabas. I was talking about this with another pastor at the interim ministry training seminar I went to in March. He described himself as a “Paul and Barnabas guy.” He meant that he thinks the time has come for many people like him to go their own way. That means leaving the fight behind and moving on with ministry in the way he thinks is best while leaving the PCUSA to do ministry how we think is best.

            I agree. I think at the level of the congregation we can have productive discussions about sexuality and we can figure out how to work together even when we disagree. But at the level of the denomination we have been fighting about this so long that it’s hard to imagine real progress.

            The fight about sexuality isn’t getting us anywhere. When we can’t work together, we should go our own way with love and prayer for each other. There are times when trying to hold different view points together will not work, when we can’t go the same place.

That’s OK. Paul and Barnabas went their own ways and both continued to be effective evangelists for Jesus. I think if churches that feel like they need to leave the denomination leave, they will do more effective ministry than if they stay. They will be able to tell people clearly that their denomination doesn’t support homosexuality, rather than making apology for the denomination’s more liberal stance. And the PCUSA will do more effective ministry if we let people go when they want to. We will be freed from the distraction of a conflict that has consumed a ton of energy while the church has withered. And we’ll be able to truly welcome all people without having to say, “We welcome you, but we won’t marry you.” We will each do better outreach to new people, and the church will grow.

I firmly believe that’s the right thing for the church to do. It’s also sad. I have friends who will not stay in the denomination, and that means I won’t see them as often. This presbytery and the church as a whole will lose many churches, which means we will have to consolidate and change how we function to work better as a smaller denomination. But God will be with both groups, and we will all do better if we follow our calling.

I have no idea who was right in the conflict between Paul and Barnabas; at this point it doesn’t matter. At that moment they could not move forward together, so they moved forward faithfully in separate directions. Most of the time we can work our conflicts out with love and honesty, but sometimes we need to go different ways. Wherever we go, whatever we decide, God is with us as we follow. Our job is to be faithful and loving in conflict and agreement. If we do that, God will work through us no matter what.

Thanks be to God.

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