I have heard the argument many times before. When people see conflict, poor behavior, and ugliness in the Church, the complaint is always the same. People feel like they see enough ugliness in the world, at work, at school, or even at home. When they come to Church they just want to be around people who love each other, who never fight, and who are always on their best, most loving, supportive behavior. Many imagine that the Church should be a conflict-free zone of love and joy; full of those who love the Lord, love one another, and love every person who walks through those doors. We want an escape from the world when we come to Church – not more of the same.
And so, in order to create this magical conflict-free Church, we start engaging in behaviors that avoid immediate conflict, but probably make things a lot worse. Instead of dealing with conflict directly, when we feel wronged by someone, we just talk about them behind their back. Or, when someone sins against us, instead of approaching the problem with the person, we just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. Or if we are feeling wronged by someone, instead of talking to them one-on-one, we just send them a nasty email, copy the clergy, and, while we are at it, we CC the bishop. Or if all else fails, when someone does us wrong, we don’t say anything: we just avoid them; un-friend them on Facebook; and, if we cannot avoid them on Sundays, then we just leave the church altogether.[i]
Part of the reason we engage in these behaviors that usually make the conflict worse is because the alternative is downright scary. We hear Jesus’ instruction manual for dealing with conflict in the church in Matthew’s gospel and we panic. First of all, Jesus’ instructions force us to admit that we will have to deal with conflict within the Church. This premise totally dismantles our dream of the loving, conflict-free Church. And we are not sure we are ready to let go of that dream. But secondly, if we can let go of our tight grasp on our conflict-free Church dream, we sure as heck do not want to follow Jesus’ instructions. Going to someone directly to talk about how someone has sinned against us scares most of us to death. We are not sure what to say and we are not sure how what we say will be received. And if we somehow manage to get over our fears and the person rejects us, we cannot imagine taking one or two others with us to approach the offender again. That sounds way too much like an intervention, and we worry that the number of people in the room will only escalate things. And since we can barely imagine taking one or two other parishioners along with us, we find the idea of bringing the offence before the entire parish unfathomable. Jesus must be out of his mind if he thinks we are going to parade our personal business in front of the whole church.
I served in a parish once that went through a major conflict. A parishioner who had been working with the youth group had developed some serious boundary issues which came to a crisis point. After receiving complaints from several parishioners, the rector called the person-in-question into his office. That one-on-one meeting did not go so well. Rumors started to fly, and the offender’s version of the conversation was quite different from the rector’s version. Eventually, others had to be brought into the conversation. The whole issue took about a year to resolve, and the offender was so angry that he eventually left the church and many other parishioners were hurt and frustrated along the way.
Part of the challenge is that using Jesus’ model for conflict resolution is not as simple as the model sounds. Meeting one-on-one can go horribly wrong, as the meeting with my old rector went wrong. And having a meeting with three or four people can also go horribly wrong – the offender can feel attacked, confidentiality can be difficult to keep, and rumors can start to spread. And sharing an individual offense with the entire parish is difficult in our litigious society. Charges of slander and libel are much too easy to file.
The good news is that I do not think the specifics of Jesus’ conflict resolution plan really matter – at least not in the strictest sense.[ii] What is more important is that this passage from Matthew does several critical things. First, this passage debunks the notion that the Church will ever be conflict-free. That this passage exists at all is evidence that conflict is a natural, unavoidable part of life, even life in the church.[iii] I know that may sound like bad news to some of us, but actually the reality that conflict is unavoidable opens the door to the second good part of this passage. In addition to helping us see the inevitability of conflict, this passage also reminds us that there are healthy ways to deal with conflict. Though we may not choose Jesus’ exact method, there are ways to encourage reconciliation over back-stabbing and gossip. And those reconciling methods are healthy for the offender, the victim, and the community as a whole. Jesus is not worried about “whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving those issues.”[iv]
Finally, Jesus reminds us that God is with us even in our ugly moments of conflict. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often jokingly quote this passage when we are having low church attendance. But what Jesus means when he says these words is that when two or three are gathered in resolving conflict, Jesus is there in their midst. I cannot imagine a more assuring word from Jesus today.
I once knew a couple who were married for 55 years. One day I asked the wife what their secret was. She told me several things, but one of them stuck. She said that if either of them was disciplining the children and the other parent disagreed with their decision, they never questioned the decision in front of the children. Later that night, they might talk about their disagreement, but they always supported one another in the heat of the moment. I remember thinking that their practice necessitated respect, biting one’s tongue, and a humble love that was free from pride. All of that was not visible through the good stuff of their marriage, but instead through the hard stuff of their marriage.
Now I know some of you are going to go home disappointed today. Your dream of Church being a conflict-free love fest is getting shattered today. You may have been hoping after hearing Paul talk about love today that we could all just sing, “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” and walk out of here on a cloud. Truthfully, having people see how we love each other and being able to recognize our Christian identity through our love is wonderful. But equally wonderful today would be if we could sing, “They Will Know We Are Christians by How We Fight.”
In a few moments, we will do a few things that mark our Christian identity. We will confess our sins, ask for healing, and pass the peace. These are all steps toward reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with one another. Perhaps you have been experiencing conflict here in our church community, at home, or at work. Now is your chance to reconcile that conflict, and live into what being a person of faith means. There is no way to avoid the fact that Christians fight, disagree, and argue. But how we fight means much more than that we fight. The church invites us to be a people committed to reconciliation, knowing that where two or three are gathered in conflict together, Christ is in the midst of us. Amen.
[i] Rick Morley, “Before You Unfriend – Matthew 18:15-20,” August 23, 2011, as found at http://www.rickmorley. com/ archives/803?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proper18agospel on September 4, 2014.
[ii] Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary_id=2164 on September 5, 2014.
[iii] Jin S. Kim, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 46.
[iv] Kim, 46.