Conflict in the Church

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.


9/11 and the Unforgiving Servant

There will, no doubt, be many, many connections made by lectionary preachers this Sunday between Matthew 18:21-35 and the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.  It is interesting to note that, at least according to, there are no alternate Gospel pericopes this week, as there often are.  Matthew 18 is it, so I would expect to see the connections abound.  But what, really, is the connection?  The overarching theme of both Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35 is clearly undeserved forgiveness.  Justice for both Joseph and the King would be to make the brothers and the servant pay what they owe, respectively.  And if these were national parables, perhaps justice would be the punchline.  But Joseph does not represent Egypt, and the King does not rule a kingdom of this earth.  Joseph represents himself, and Jesus is clear: “The Reign of the Heavens is like….”

Both the religious Left and the religious Right are apparently unable to make distinctions.  The religious Right will abuse Old Testament texts to show how the justice of God ought to be carried out in this nation; and the religious Left will abuse New Testament texts (and this one is a banner example) to show how the mercy of God ought to be carried out in this nation.  Neither seems willing or able to understand that God rules this world in two different ways, with two different purposes, and it all hinges on the fact that this world is divided between those who trust God in Jesus Christ, and those who don’t.  The wheat and the weeds will grow together until the end of the age.

The question is, who is to forgive whom?  Is this a parable telling the United States, as a nation or government, to “forgive” the 9/11 hijackers or Osama bin Laden?  What would that even mean?  And whom does that make the fellow servants?  Liberal Europeans?  The United Nations?  “Prophetic” mainline preachers?

It all sounds very pious and religious for Christians to call on the United States to forgive its enemies and decry the “vengeance” that the U.S. took in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But that would be a terrible country in which to live, and it would be a far worse theocracy than one governed by Old Testament laws (which, we should remember, were partly enacted to set limits on vengeance in a community).  I know it sounds anti-Christian to say that a government “forgiving” its enemies opens such a country up to anarchy and destruction.  That sounds like I don’t trust the “grace” of God to do its work.  Doesn’t Jesus Himself say to forgive your enemies?

The problem is in that “your.”  Whose enemies?  Mine.  Yours.  Not the U.S. Government’s.  Not the State’s.  The State cannot forgive, just as it cannot preach the Gospel.  Nothing could be worse, from a Christian perspective, than the government doing the Church’s job.  (Read Michael Burleigh’s two books on the religious pretensions of States, if that doesn’t make sense.)  If the government cannot even spend wisely, how would it do with the Gospel?  And I don’t trust the Church to do the State’s job, either.  I don’t want preachers keeping the civil peace, and I don’t want denominations with prisons.  Only individual Christians can forgive, and the Gospel can only be applied individually, thought that same Gospel then binds individuals into the one Body of Christ.  Within that Body, the Church, I can only and always put my trust in the Gospel.  That’s all there is.  Within the boundaries of the State, however, there is no Gospel, only rationally applied justice (which can and does fail).

Back to 9/11: if an individual Christian lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks, without a doubt, this parable applies.  Likewise, if individual Christians bear hatred toward the hijackers under the guise of patriotism, they are forsaking their King and denying themselves His forgiveness.  But I wonder if an excessive focus on 9/11 by most preachers in most congregations (who were probably not directly impacted ten years ago) can become an easy way out of calling to repentance the individual Christians in that congregation.  It would be easy to focus on the tenth anniversary of a single national tragedy and forgiving its perpetrators, while the countless, particular tragedies of hard-hearted unforgiveness go unaddressed.  That is the same danger that accompanies preaching against national sins or sins “out there” when those sins are not the sins of the people in the local congregation.  It is indeed necessary to warn against the sins of the age, but hatred of those sins can quickly innoculate sinners against hatred of their own flesh and its particular, personally devastating sins.

I will preach forgiveness on Sunday, but it will not be the pseudo-prophecy of calling the United States to forgive her enemies.  It will be the same message as always: the mercy of Jesus for each sinner, and the forgiving love for particular neighbors that flows from Jesus’ mercy.  The Reign of the Heavens is manifest in Jesus’ Presence with His Church; He has not yet revealed Himself to all people as King of the World.  That day will come, but the theocrats of all stripes will not bring it any sooner.