People Don't Like Conflict in Church
People don't like conflict, and they especially don't like it in church. Church is supposed to be about love, niceness, good feelings, and getting validated by people we imagine speak for God. We don't get this idea from the Bible. We get it from where we got most of our ideas, from our own desire to be loved, cherished, and worshipped if we can find a willing worshipper.
I'm working through the book of Acts in my church and last week we got up to Acts 15, one of the most important chapters for the church in the whole Bible.
The Almighty Shuts Up
God has been anything but shy in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit blows through the unsuspecting followers of Jesus in Acts 2. In Acts 3 Peter and John heal a crippled beggar for everyone to see only to speak with boldness before the leadership that not too long before had killed Jesus. Ananias and Sapphira drop dead. The Apostles and eventually other Jesus followers like deacon Phillip do public wonders including raising the dead. Peter gets a vision while he's dozing on the roof in Joppa and then the Holy Spirit ambushes Cornelius and his household. Paul gets knocked to the ground when Jesus breaks into his life. Prophets are in the churches and they get very specific with things like famines and God's plan for Paul. God is anything but unable and unwilling to directly lead this new church, but when a vital question question arises about community identity and standards (circumcision and the Mosaic law) God seems to take a powder.
What ensues is a donnybrook. Luke seems to indulge in understatement with his "no small dissension and debate".
In Acts Paul clearly has a knack for getting under people's skin, having the spiritual gift of starting riots in nearly every town he visits, probably hit the Judaizers with something like what he wrote in the book of Galatians. I've been in church fights where rocks have been thrown against the church building, where picketers have marched outside Sunday services, where ugly names have been called, but I've never heard anyone besides Paul suggest self-castration for his opponents.
While all of this goes on, God stays silent. No Gideon's fleece. No rainbow in the sky. No ground swallowing, pestilence or fire from heaven. What we seem to get, however, is stale proceedure. Ben Witherington in his commentary on Acts notes this.
We want a divine directive, The Holy Spirit offers a procedural manual
As Johnson has ably pointed out, the “attention Luke gives to how the Church makes the decision required of it is an intrinsic part of his narrative message.” The procedure followed in decision making as portrayed here involved: (1) a process of discernment and recognition of God’s activity; (2) the interpretation of Scripture in such a way as to make sense of what has happened; (3) a view that debate and dispute are a part, necessary part, of the process of discernment—“such disagreement serves to reveal the true bases for fellowship, and elicit the fundamental principles of community identity; and (4) finally, the consent or agreement of the εκκλησια to the ruling offered by the church leader, in this case James.
Witherington III, B. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles : A socio-rhetorical commentary (451). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
"You, yes YOU, will be my witnesses"
Jesus wasn't unclear with the disciples in Acts 1:6-8, we're just uncertain about the wisdom of his decision. When we face difficult questions about God, our community, what is right, what we should do, what expectations we should have, who should do what and who should stop doing whatelse, we want God to be a somewhat lower than heavenly Father and give us the answers. God seems regularly less than helpful in these circumstances and what we are left with is each other. We may trust our own judgment, but have doubts about everyone else's.
This week Synod will start and for some it is an 8 day long classis meeting where you get to sleep in a student bunk and eat dining hall food. The accomodations aren't the difficult part. It is the fighting, the boredom, the hot tempers, the guy (it is usually a guy) who feels the need to share on EVERY topic (fortunately I'm not going this year, someone else will take my place, I believe his name is Bruce...) and the proceedural wrangling that makes us cynical about the church and God's governance over it. These unwieldy assemblies filled with flawed, imperfect, often wrong-headed people are supposed to be at least a part of our witness to Jesus and it seems nuts.
The Patience of God
Whatever we think of this process or its outcomes (what kind of horse would Synod design?) what is clear is that God wants us to work on this together. We are simply stuck with each other. Even as we break up into denominations, trying to regroup our holy huddles among like minded people we inevitably find something else to fight about, and God lets us do it.
Remember, even Jesus couldn't stop the fighting, in fact he sometimes jumped right in. He knew how to land a verbal blow, broods of vipers, whitewashed tombs... God wants us to work it through, and work it out, and in the process begin to work on ourselves.
The Face of God
By keeping clear of us when we get full of ourselves, God allows us to be us. He allows us space to work, space to explore, space to listen, space to find each other, space to learn. Job pops off chapter after chapter after taking horrendous losses and enduring his friends who are miserable comforters. When God shows up, Job has to shut up.
Sometimes we seek his face by getting in each other's faces. We usually have to face ourselves, when we realize we are unable to change the other. God himself is the greatest other we finally won't win our argument with.
Debate, Believe, Embrace
Sometimes we need to make an enemy before we love them. So let's do the work of the church, and continue with the updated versions of the circumcision arguments. Let's debate hard and while we're debating let's believe that somehow, in this mysterious, uncontrollable process, the God is in fact moving his church and working on us as well. In the end let's also learn to embrace our enemies and while we're not able to agree on all sorts of things, let's agree that our obnoxious opposition is the very person we are commanded to love in an uncomfortably costly way.
Go! Debate! Believe! Embrace! and maybe we'll read the minutes when the dust settles.