“The Lectionary,” as many of you have heard before, is a suggested schedule of Bible readings for Sunday worship services, designed to lead us to all of the most important passages of the Bible over a three-year period. Lately the Gospel part of the Lectionary has been walking us through the Gospel of Matthew. So lately we have heard: the sower and seeds parable from the beginning of Matthew 12, the wheat and weeds parable from later in Matthew 12, Peter’s statement of faith “You are the Messiah” in Matthew 16, and so on.
And that’s why we are about to hear our next passage, from Matthew 18. It’s not because there is some kind of conflict in the congregation, or because I heard that two of you are quarreling, or there’s a big controversy in the Presbytery or denomination. No, it’s just that it is this passage’s “turn” now. So that being understood: “Jesus said…” (Matthew 18: 15-17, 21-22).
In the past few years, we have seen pop up in bookstores and magazines and newspapers several books and articles which point out that many of life’s important lessons are ones that we were taught early in life. “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” was one title. Life’s Lessons from My Sunday School Teacher. Living the Way My Mother Taught Me.
And as we approach the topic put before us by the Lectionary, the topic of how we treat one another in church, it seems to me that that last one, living the way our mothers taught us, might be especially helpful to us today. After all, how did our mothers wish us to relate, when we were children, to our sisters and brothers? To our friends? Our classmates? The other kids in the neighborhood? “Get along with them,” right? “Be nice.” “Don’t fight.” “Don’t pick on anyone.” If you did get into a quarrel: “Say I’m sorry and be friends again.” Those sound like mother-type of pieces of advice to me, and we can keep them in the back of our minds, as we take up the subject of getting along with each other in the church. Also known as: Conflict Management.
Now since it was written in the very earliest days of the church, you might think that the Bible wouldn’t have much to say on managing conflict in the church. After all, how much conflict could there have been after just a few years of the Christian Church’s existence, in the first century? Well, you’d be wrong. The Biblical writings from the first years of the church show there was plenty of conflict already, so we have plenty of verses we can turn to. The best example is probably the new church in Corinth. I Corinthians starts out by addressing “quarrels among you,” to quote chapter 1: verse 11, over who baptized whom and who was superior to whom. The rest of the letter refers to conflicts over: arrogant people in the church, what to do about a case of immorality, lawsuits brought by some church members against others, food offered to idols, gluttony and drunkenness and not sharing at church suppers, and speaking in tongues and other worship matters. Quite an “interesting” place. And that’s just one letter to one church.
There’s also reference to conflicts in the church in Matthew, Galatians, Colossians, Acts, Thessalonians, James. . . There are plenty of examples of conflict in the church, from its first days.
And unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped since. A review of the history of the Christian Church is full of stories of arguments, schisms, denominations splitting up, disagreeing, condemning each other, accusing each other . . . Disputes over theology, over who should be in charge, over the details of Christ’s return, over slavery, over matters of personal morality . . . And that doesn’t even include all the little disputes between individuals: personality conflicts, gossip, what to spend money on, which way we’re going to do something . . . why, our puppet team might be the only group in church history where there’s never been a single cross word or hurt feeling between team members, at the end of a long practice, when people are tired or stressed . . . The pattern of conflict set by the early Christian Church certainly continues to the present day.
What is the outcome of these conflicts? What feelings and attitudes do they generate? Generally the first words that come to mind are probably: Anger. Suspicion. Distrust. Accusations. Self-righteousness. Defensiveness. In general, not happy feelings. When we get caught up in a dispute going on in a church, the feelings don’t tend to be any different than with the disputes in a family, or on the job, or in a political debate, or any other kind of dispute. The result tends to be unhappy feelings. This isn’t to say that differences of opinion are always bad. It’s through differences of opinion that we sometimes get a great new idea, or a renewed sense of direction or vision. But if we start taking the discussion personally, or making it personal, that’s when it escalates to a “conflict,” and we get those unhappy feelings.
The feelings that result, in fact, tend to be exactly the opposite of the results described in our first Scripture lesson today. The Gospel of John says that, when we’re abiding in Christ, we will bear fruit. And if we flip over to Galatians we see what that fruit is: patience, kindness, gentleness, joy, peace. If instead of those things we’re experiencing the opposite fruits—impatience, meanness, distrust, unhappiness, lack of peace—well we must be doing something wrong. If the fruits we’re reaping are the opposite of the fruits we get from abiding in Jesus, I’d say we must not be abiding in Jesus; we must be somewhere else. And that’s not a good place.
If we ever find ourselves experiencing the conflict-type fruits in a church—anger, suspicion, and so on: the opposite of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the opposite results of abiding in Jesus—we’re doing something wrong.
So what do we do about it? Listen to our mothers? No! I mean- yes! Always listen to your mother. But in this case, we can find help specifically for this situation, conflict in the church, in our second Scripture lesson, Matthew 18. It provides step-by-step instructions on what to do in case of conflict in the church.
Let’s review the steps: “If another member of the church sins against you” –if you’ve been wronged, or think you’ve been wronged: maybe they said something untrue about you, or undermined a church project you’ve been working on, or overstepped their authority, or are doing something immoral you think will hurt the whole body—“if another member of the church sins against you”. . . what do you do first? Start an equally-nasty rumor about them? Complain to all your family and friends about what that so-and-so did or didn’t do? Undermine one of their projects? No, Matthew 18 says: you go to the person. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault to them, when the two of you are alone.” Just you and him, or you and her.
Sit down together. Talk it out. Pretty much exactly the opposite, isn’t it, of what we tend to do, which is to go to other people and complain, talk about her, talk to anyone but her. The Bible is clear: you must take it up with that person alone; don’t talk about it to anyone else. Why? Because if they listen to you, and come around, the problem is solved, and their standing won’t have been damaged in anyone else’s eyes; there will be no embarrassment later, no awkwardness. Or perhaps you’ll find there was a good reason for what they did, or that you’d received some misinformation. “If the member listens to you, you have restored that one.”
What if they don’t listen? Then can you start that nasty rumor? No! “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you,” to the person, and try again. Take it up with the person, again. Still no talking about them, or what they did or didn’t do, to others. Perhaps if he sees that a couple objective witnesses also believe that he’s in the wrong, he’ll be able to see the error of his ways: “Well, if all three of you think I shouldn’t do that, perhaps you’re right.; I’ll stop.” Or maybe the witnesses will agree with him. Either way, once again you’ve kept the situation contained: no gossip, no rumors, no whisper-down-the-lane until the story’s all wrong, no later awkwardness—just a restored sister or brother.
Then, only after two attempts to straighten it out face-to-face, and if you decide it’s important enough, you may take it to the church. Now understand this is a step of last resort. We’re not going to call a congregational meeting every time someone says “She looked at me crooked.” The point of the verse is: only after you’ve made two attempts to handle it with the person, can you go to other people in the church at large. The Bible says: You don’t start by complaining about her; by questioning his morality to others; by talking about her at all. You must go to him—twice!—as your first steps. I don’t think Scripture could be much clearer.
Let’s try a case study, to see how it works. Now understand: I am making this story up; this didn’t really happen. Did you hear me? I am making this story up; this didn’t really happen. Say it with me: “He is making this story up; this didn’t really happen.” OK, now we can proceed.
Imagine that a parent of a Paris Presbyterian sixth or seventh-grader is unhappy with something the child’s Sunday School teacher discussed in class. Maybe they looked at a story of a family in which the parents lost their jobs and ended up homeless, and Mother doesn’t think little Connie should have to hear about such harsh realities, that it will worry her, keep her from sleeping at night. In other words, Mother thinks Teacher has done something wrong, has potentially harmed her family’s life together.
So Mother’s wondering “how should I approach this?” How can I keep this introduction of inappropriate or troubling material from happening again? And being a good Biblical church member, who has listened to every word of the pastor’s recent sermons, she remembers Matthew 18. She calls up Teacher, says, “May I meet you somewhere for a few minutes? I have a concern related to little Connie that I’d like to discuss with you.” And they get together, and Mother explains why she thinks that kind of story may be too upsetting for her child.
What does Mother not do? She doesn’t call the other parents in the class about what that awful, irresponsible teacher did—“aren’t you outraged?” She doesn’t go to the Pastor or Session or Christian Education Committee and say “What are you going to do about that Teacher? She’s a menace!” She doesn’t call talk radio. She doesn’t make it the subject of a mass email, or her blog, or a Facebook post. She doesn’t sit in her adult Sunday School class saying to the group “I think we have something going on in our church that you all need to know about.” She follows the Bible, and goes to the Teacher, alone.
So Mother and Teacher have a polite, non-accusing, non-defensive conversation, and at the end Teacher says, “I hear your concern, but I have to disagree. I think by Connie’s age, it isn’t inappropriate for the curriculum to have introduced a story that lets kids know that sometimes a tragedy happens and a family is left homeless. How are we going to learn how to help others, as good Christians, if we pretend there aren’t people around who need our help?”
Both Mother and Teacher are firm in their opinions, but polite; the meeting ends cordially, and now Mother has a decision to make. Going back to Matthew 18, she sees that her next step if she wishes to pursue it further, is to have a second conversation with Teacher, this time with a couple other people present too. So Mother describes the situation only to one or two other people—a couple other parents, maybe, or two people from the Christian Education Committee. Just those two: still not all the parents, or other people in the church, or her adult Sunday School class, or anyone else.
And now the four of them sit down together to discuss which Sunday School stories are and aren’t appropriate for that age group, and perhaps come to some sort of agreement or compromise. No yanking Connie out of the class in a huff, no bad-mouthing the Teacher to others, no going around recruiting people to be on her side. Mother has done what the Bible says, for a case of conflict in the church. End of case study.
Looking at the first-century Church, and the history of the Christian Church, and the contemporary Christian Church, one would have to conclude . . . that conflict is probably inevitable in the church. Except on the puppet teams. It’s going to happen, sooner or later. Church deals with things people have strong opinions about, or feel passionately about—so now and then there will be conflict. Perhaps this is why we have been provided with such a clear blueprint in the Bible for how to proceed when conflict arises: (1) First go to the person alone. (2) If that doesn’t work, take one or two others with you and go to them again. (3) Don’t start by going to others in the church. That’s how we handle conflict. The Bible tells me so.
And besides, it would make our mothers happy.
Let us pray: God if and when we find ourselves in a position of disagreement or conflict with a fellow church member, help us to recall the instructions you have given us in Matthew 18. And help us to carry them out faithfully, that all will be done for the upbuilding of your church and to honor you. Amen.