by Rev. N. Susan Brims
East District Superintendent
I was reading a commentary on the book of First Corinthians that started out by saying the book was written for a church that was experiencing great divisions. Some of the divisions were along ethnic lines. Others were divisions in theological beliefs. What is painful is the fact that parties on all sides of the dividing line claimed to be following what their faith taught them. First Corinthians challenged people to learn a different way of addressing differences. This book challenges people, even those of us in the church today, to be guided by a spirit of love and unity, seeing one another as siblings – members of the same body. The reality is that Christ-Followers are in a unique position to find ways to work through the things that divide us with grace, working for a greater common good.
In 2018 David Field wrote an interesting article in Ministry Matters1. It was an excerpt from his book, Our Purpose Is Love: The Wesleyan Way to Be the Church. In this article, Field seems to give us directions about how to approach difference in perspectives in a way that is more transformational, and less conflicting.
We can open ourselves to the transforming power of God only as we realize our brokenness and failure. The starting point of our journey to a fuller realization of what it means to be the church is the recognition of our own reality and our dependence on the power of God. Recognition must then lead to two further actions: The first is repentance. In repentance, we confess our sinful contribution to the state of the church. We are part of the problem. The failure of the church is not the result of others who are in the wrong; it is because of us and our sin. It is the recognition that sin clings to our best motivated actions and words. The second is lament. Lament is identification with the church in its brokenness without ascribing blame. It is the deep awareness that, even with the best intentions, because of our human fallibility and finitude, we have contributed to the failure of the church.
Following repentance and lament there must be thanksgiving. Thanksgiving arises out of the recognition that, despite our failures and brokenness, God has been at work in amazing and unexpected ways. God has used transformed lives. God has used the church to bring healing, hope, reconciliation, and justice in our world. Out of this recognition we ought to turn to God in praise, affirming God’s amazing grace. Thanksgiving leads us to recognize that God can transform us and the church to a renewed faith in the power of the Spirit. Repentance, lament, and thanksgiving give birth to a new hope, which motivates us to cry to God to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church to convict, transform, and renew it.
The struggle present in our country today has a lot to do with the fact that so many seem to have lost sight of a more Christian way to handle differences. We have great difficulty in recognizing, much less admitting, our own part in creating the problems that exist. We want to believe it is someone else’s fault, so we find ways to shift the blame.
Field’s article has some interesting things to say about transforming conflict in the church, but I want to tell you there are some statements in his article that I cannot fully accept. Field writes that the task of transforming conflict is God’s work, and God’s work alone. If I thought that were true, then I might have to wonder why we have conflict at all. For me, the struggle arises from the fact that people are human, and as humans we make our choices based on our own criteria. I believe you and I have a part to play, and we can choose to tear apart or tear down in order to build up.
Here is what I want to say in this article, as the people who follow the way of Jesus, I do believe we are uniquely positioned to model for the world healthy ways to disagree with one another. It matters how we view one another. It matters how we view the situation at hand. It matters how we choose to take steps to bring about change. It seems recently I have been having lots of conversations where I invite people to reframe a conflict into a statement of the problem in a way that is not blaming of judgmental and speaks of a hoped-for future. It is a first step in transforming conflict and preserving relationships along the way.
This week, as you go through your daily life, as we all prepare for Annual Conference, I invite you to consider the ways in which you engage when there is a difference of opinion or a difference of perspective. Reflect on how you think about, talk about the people who may believe differently from you. Consider if your approach to resolving the differences is a call to transformation or a call to take sides. Then I invite you to spend a few minutes journaling. Here are a few Bible passages that you may want to consider during your self-reflection time:
1 Corinthians 12:4-7 – Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Peter 3:8-11 – Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.
Matthew 5:23-24 – So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Every person, every system, every organization has practices that shape how things happen, how people relate to one another. As Christ-Shaped Leaders, let us model for the world a better way to handle differences, valuing every person as a precious gift from God. Let us love one another into new life. It is the way of Christ.
Your Sister on the Journey,