I don’t like conflict. I don’t like things that might lead to conflict. I don’t like thinking about things that might lead to conflict.
But if there’s no conflict, there may be a problem. Think about a married couple about to be divorced. Do they even fight anymore? What’s the point? It’s over. So while I don’t like conflict, I get a little worried if nothing can cause it. In a local congregation, many things cause people to fight and argue with each other. Most of the time, at least from the outside, those conflicts seem peripheral, if not completely irrelevant, to the actual life of the Church. That’s not the sort of conflict I’m after. St. Paul instructs Timothy not to argue about those inconsequential things, and he tells the congregation in Rome to welcome the “weaker brother,” but not to argue over opinions, such as what days should be fast days, or whether to eat meat, even if the animal was sacrificed to an idol. The sort of conflict that should be present in the Church is a passionate argument about the things that are at the heart of what it means to be the Church. Just because Christians have been arguing for 500+ years over God’s justification of the sinner doesn’t mean we should stop now. As soon as we stop arguing, it means we’ve stopped caring.
And that is the point when it comes to the local congregation as well. If we cease to argue over the things that actually matter–the Word of God, the Sacraments, the life that Christians live together as the Body of Christ–then maybe we’ve ceased to care. It could be, I suppose, that if we’ve stopped arguing, that means that we’ve come to a full agreement on the “important stuff.” That may be a purely eschatological hope, however. Let me be as clear as possible about what I’m thinking: if you join a congregation and participate in the sacramental life of that congregation, you should be convinced that that congregation is teaching the Word of God rightly. You might not agree about every pragmatic plan used to provide for the Word of God and the Sacraments in that place, but you should be convinced that the Word as it is taught and the Sacraments as they are administered there line up with the Scriptures. If not, or if things change from when you first joined, you have a responsibility as a member of the Body of Christ in that place to attempt to correct the false teaching or the false practice (which will, eventually, always go together).
But let’s say that the leaders of the congregation, or the pastor, or even an individual member, proposes such-and-such course of action to promote the Word and Sacraments in that place (that is, the life of Christ there), and there is no discomfort, or no disagreement, or no enthusiastic support either. Little red lights should be flashing and alarm bells should be ringing. There is a problem. If there is only apathy or a deafening silence, that congregation is probably as near death as it can be. You only argue (or you should only argue) about things you care about. If you don’t care about your congregation’s spiritual life, you won’t argue about how best to support it. That argument should be an actual argument: it should have reasoning that leads to certain conclusions. In the Church, both the reasoning and the conclusions must be Scriptural. (Whether they are solidly Scriptural–i.e., centered in Christ–is part of the argument to be had.)
What else happens when a congregation or a church body or the whole Church stops arguing about Christ and what is His? We start arguing about things that don’t matter; or, rather, we argue about things that don’t matter to the Church; that is, things that matter to everyone. We start making resolutions or statements about Israel and Palestine, or genetically modified food, or health insurance, or national debt. Christians can argue about those things, but the Church has no business there, precisely because anyone or everyone may have a stake in the argument, whether Christian or not. The Church’s business is Christ, Gospel, Sacraments, forgiveness, eternal life, Trinity, etc. Things that are not obvious to everyone. Things that must be proclaimed, rather than rationally argued. The Church’s business is always foreign to the vast majority of the people around her.
Hermann Sasse has an insight into what the Church’s business is vis-à-vis the world.
The great political experiment of the Constantinian age, to save the empire by means of the church, had failed. What Constantine had seen as the promise of the church, the church did not fulfill…But is it not really the case that the church had failed? Did it not have anything better to do in these world-transforming times than to argue about theological problems? Before Nicaea Constantine had warned the church against this. Did not the great synods of the empire face more compelling and practical tasks than the hammering out of theological formulas? Think of the enormous mission opportunity with which the church was suddenly confronted when Constantine laid a world at its feet. Think of the problems the Migration of Nations[!] placed before it.
But the resolutions which modern churches and synods feel themselves compelled to make in taking a position regarding events in the world had not yet been invented. And so the Synod of Constantinople in 381 achieved “nothing more” than the enduring confession that the Son is “of one substance” with the Father and that the Holy Spirit is truly God.
But is this not actually much more than anything the synod could have achieved if it had put out some word for the hour, for the situation of the church, a message to the world, to the empire, and to the nations? Is not the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed perhaps the very word, the message which modern Christians yearn for in the church of that time? … This confession [Nicene Creed], made by the Christians of a dying world, became the confession of those new peoples and the confession of all succeeding generations of the church.
Is that not something much greater than all the “relevant” and “practical” resolutions and releases produced by church meetings in our day? [1951!] Where are all the pronouncements with which the ecumenical world conferences have accompanied the secular history of our day? The world never even heard them, and the churches have long since forgotten them. You will not even find them in the textbooks of church history. The creed of that ancient synod, on the other hand, is prayed in thousands and thousands of churches every Sunday. More martyrs have probably died for this creed in the 20th century than in all the foregoing centuries of church history combined. [Hermann Sasse, “The 1,500th Anniversary of Chalcedon,” Letters to Lutheran Pastors, no. 21, We Confess Jesus Christ (St. Louis: CPH, 1984), 57-58]
So I pray that the Church keeps fighting, until her Lord puts an end to it Himself.