Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

I’d like to start off by relating an incident at an interim church I once served. Like many of them, it was a conflicted situation. Before it was over, a number of people left. They were a group opposing the president of the council and some of its other members. He was exposing some nasty things most of them were involved in, although he wasn’t doing it in the best possible way. As I learned later, one person who left actually filed a lawsuit against him. By that time, however, he too had left the church, and I didn’t stay long enough to find out what happened.

I assume such legal action has never happened here, guessing those of you who have served as council presidents during trying times might now think you didn’t have it so bad after all!

Isn’t it shocking that one church member would sue another?  Certainly nothing like that ever happened in the early church, right?  Here’s what St. Paul writes in 1stCorinthians:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare…take it to court…instead of taking it before the saints?...I say this to your shame. Can it be…there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a [brother or sister in Christ]?…to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.[i]

 Jesus himself has something to say about this—at the end of today’s gospel: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them, trying my darnedest to teach them ‘Christian Conflict Resolution 101.’”[ii]

 Isn’t that true? As soon as two or three or more people get together, there can be just as many differences of opinion about one thing or another. And some can be significant enough to turn into controversy, right?

 Often enough, it’s not only a difference of opinion that can get two people crossways, but, of course, other things, too. In a church, here are some of them. Again, I turn to Paul—this time in his letter to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious…licentiousness,…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger,…dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness…”[iii  

While that last one usually affects only Christians within their own families, I have seen it become a problem on a congregational level. Most of the time, though, offenses in the church have to do with other things, especially the following:

·         decision making that doesn’t go through the proper channels;

·         people neglecting responsibilities they have accepted;

·         some having unrealistic expectations of others;

·         some creating power groups that do battle with other such groups;[iv]

·         and last and maybe most common, communication that is destructive.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther has something to say about that last one—in his comments on bearing false witness:

We are to fear and love God, so…we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.[v]

A fair amount of destructive communication is indirect, that is, people talking about some person instead of to that person. Isn’t that part of what Jesus means?“ If another member of the church sins against you [or you believe that person has], go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”[vi] Not when overcome with anger or hurt or some other such emotion, but calmly and rationally, questioning not the other person’s character, but rather his or her behavior and how one feels affected by it.

That’s not an easy thing for many of us to do, especially in churches. Not for most church members. And not for a number of church staff, either, including pastors. Isn’t it much easier to complain to a kindred soul with a sympathetic ear, whom we hope will tell us how right we are and how terribly wrong the other person must be? Or sometimes we actually want the person who has offended usto know what is upsetting or bothering us, but do it indirectly, for example, getting someone else to deliver the message—and maybe also remain anonymous.

You might find this shocking—absolutely shocking [tongue in cheek]—but that’s how pastors occasionally get that kind of message! It’s not uncommon in congregations, and Christ Church is no exception. So let me take this opportunity to say, if any of you ever feel offended or upset by something I’ve said or done or not done, and you believe it’s important enough to be addressed, please, come talk to me. My cell phone number is on the worship bulletin, and my office door is usually open. Or we could meet somewhere else, say, for coffee. Now, I may not like what you have to say. And/Or I may not agree with it. But I do promise this: At the very least, I will respectfully listen, taking to heart your thoughts and your words.

The point Jesus is making is that such conversations hopefully mark both the beginning and end of a process that leads to reconciliation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. And that’s whenthe offended party may arrange to meet again with the so-call accused person, but this time with two or more witnesses….Did you notice some of the terminology I just used?

·         Offended party?

·         The accused?

·         Witnesses?

Now we’re talking about more than just two persons trying to iron out a disagreement. Instead of focusing on repairing a relationship, now we’re looking at something that resembles an official procedure, something that sounds semi-legal or at least has overtones of that. And, in fact, as some of you know, today’s gospel is used as a model for church discipline. Except in this case, not just anybody directly approaches another about a grievance. Rather, the pastor is the one who, on behalf of the congregation, contacts the person who has allegedly sinned in some significant way. It’s in our constitution—Chapter XV: Discipline of Members and Adjudication.

Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent troublemaking…are sufficient cause for discipline of a member Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps:

a.      private admonition by the pastor;

b.      admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses; and

c.       citation to appear before the…Council.

Over the years, I know instances when using that process would have been justified. But at what cost? Depending on the persons involved, just imagine the divisiveness it can cause. And think how that process can be abused. A pastor who has it “in” for someone and who has previously “packed” the council with supporters, can do some real damage. By the same token, those who don’t like the pastor—for one reason or another—can try to get elected to council for the express purpose of getting rid of him or her. Usually, it can be like pulling teeth to recruit people for council. But if a conflict arises and gets really ugly, then, all of a sudden, some people can’t wait to get on. Ahead of the election a few will even get campaign managers! I kid you not!

The only time I have ever resorted to disciplining a church member was as a warning, a preemptive action, so to speak. I learned that in the men’s Sunday school class he belonged to, he was going to accuse the bishop of heresy. Can you believe that?  This guy was going to use the class to whip up support for his cause. When I got wind of it, I tried reaching him on the phone. Failing in that, I emailed him, using the words I quoted to you from the constitution, warning him what could happen were he to use that class for such a thing. Well, that time, I was successful, but not in the long run.

Someday I’m going to write a book.

Near the beginning of the message I talked about Jesus teaching “Christian Conflict Resolution 101.”But a sermon a minister once gave took exception to that approach, and, to me, what he says makes good sense. This preacher, Randy Hyde of a Baptist church in Little Rock, shares the following:

…Jesus is the last person on earth to give advice [on] how to deal [with fighting in the church]. He wasn’t exactly an effective conflict manager, now was he? After all, he ended up on a cross, and if you look at the biblical record close enough you will find…he is the one who really brought the confrontation to a head with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He could have stayed out of town, laid low for a while, let things simmer down. But no, no, no. He had to march full-bore right into the heart of the battle. It was almost as if he [were] determined to die a martyr’s death.[vii]

That, in fact, is how you and I have been made right with God. As Paul writes:“…if anyone is in

Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ…[viii]

Reconciling is a pretty good way to describe it. But I believe another word, a stronger word, is even better. And that’s “redemption.” We have been redeemed, we have been forgiven by God through the blood of Jesus.

When it comes to church conflict, as a young pastor I remember those words once being used by a bishop’s assistant, who was talking about divisions in churches that sometimes are so severeno amount of mediation—no matter how skillful—will restore, will patch things up the way they used to be. This is the last thing that assistant told me: “There’s not always reconciliation, but there is redemption.” That is, there’s not always reconciliation between two believers or within what has been a fellowship of Christians. But there still can be—through the death and resurrection of Christ—redemption for all.

 

[i]Proverbs 17:10; 25:9-10, 12; 1 Corinthians 6:1, 5-7.

 

[ii] For this phrase I am indebted to the Rev. David Sellery in his sermon “As We Forgive” in https://www.sermonwriter.com/sermons/matthew-1815-20-as-we-forgive-sellery.

 

[iii] Galatians 5:19-21a.Also see 1 Timothy 6:3-5.

 

[iv] E.g., 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-22.

 

[v]A Contemporary Translation ofLuther’s Small Catechism, trans. Timothy J. Wengert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975): 17.

 

[vi]Also see Matthew 5:23-24; 1 Timothy 5:19-20 and Titus 3:9-11.

 

[vii]Randy L. Hyde, “Two or Three,” in https://www.sermonwriter.com/sermons/matthew-1815-20-twi-ir-three-hyde.

 

[viii] 2 Corinthians 5:17-18a