For the last two Sundays I have been preaching through Romans 14 and it has been a challenging experience for me and the church. It has been a big help in thinking through the whole issue of why we so often end up with disputes in the heart of church life. Conflict is part of life and part of church life. Sometimes a church exhibits healthy conflict, which provides opportunity and builds relationships. Sometimes, a church exhibits unhealthy conflict – it escalates, breaking relationships, bringing shame and hurt with devastating consequences for clergy and congregations.
An easily accepted attitude.
IN Romans and in fact in a lot of the book Paul has been setting out the fact that the Jews are not a lost nation but are part of Gods plan and will not be abandoned and in chapter 14 he uses a real life issue to illustrate a greater truth. In the opening verses of chapter 14 there are the Jews who he describes as weaker because they felt bound to the practises of the old Jewish way. And the gentile Christians as the strong because they felt no need to be bound by the old ways.
The issue Paul is going to address is that the church may be divided in practise and habit of behaviour but it is united in Christ. Here is my first point, that the propagation of the gospel of Christ is bound up for better or for worse with the degree of unity we display to the world.
In our deanery we have churches of every tradition and at one end of the candle we have a high church man and at the other an ultra liberal. My question is and must be what of the 1st order issues do we share a belief in and if we differ in a view of the Cross, resurrection or some other issue then should I just cut myself off form them. But if they believe as I do in the cross as God atoning sacrifice that paid for my sin and freed me from the wrath of God but do thing I don’t do and would dream of doing in terms of high church ritual is it right for me to judge them as lost and heretical.
But let’s bring it closer to home and look deeply into the evangelical world. When my last bishop came into his diocese there was an air of celebration among evangelicals because of his heritage. But there was a very judgemental undercurrent as well, because the “sound” Conservative were on the sidelines saying in their heads and hearts we need to watch our brother to see him prove his credentials before we affirm him. In verse 2 and 3 the gentiles where looking down on the Jewish Christiansand judging a perceived weakness of faith. The greatest point in the verses is at the end of verse 3 where it says that who are we to condemn;
“for God has welcomed him.”
Then in verse 4 Paul says who are you to judge another mans servant. That Bishop loves the Lord and want to see the kingdom grow in his diocese and is the servant of Christ So what causes us to judge we tend to judge in two ways. We fall to easily into the trap of Judgement without knowledge.
We tend to judge in two ways. When we make situational attributions, we believe their behaviour is due to something in another persosns situation: For example, our member of the congregation might have been short with us, because s/he is tired or overworked.
Then there is personality attributions which are more about the person’s character. When we make these attributions, we believe the behaviour is due to the person’s personality. Assuming that same Mrs X who was short with us is impatient or unkind is making a personality attribution. Paul is saying both are wrong. It has been said “It is easy to praise or to blame others for their actions, but unless we know their motivation we really know nothing at all.“ and most of the time we imply things that are not rightly implied.
This is the heart of the issue of conflict in the church. Now I am not calling for an atmosphere of tolerance which the secular world understands as an important concept that helps people to live together peacefully. To be tolerant in secular terms means that you accept other people’s opinions and preferences, even when they live in a way that you don’t agree with. Tolerance also means that you don’t put your opinions above those of others, even when you are sure that you are right. Tolerant people show strength in that they can deal with different opinions and perspectives. No, I am calling for us as far as 2nd order issues are concerned to see them for what they are and Judgement of other Christians is absolutely incompatible with Christian faith.
We slip too quickly into the mode of being judge, jury, prosecutor and jailer when we forget we are a pardoned criminal and that has devastating effects. Let’s look at one in practise. Where there is judgement the often an absence of prayer. You can’t pray for someone you judge because you’re actually not for them. Sure, you can pray about them, but again, your prayer won’t be grounded in humility. It might be grounded in anger, or in arrogance, or superiority, but it won’t be grounded in love
Correction that turns into a stumbling block.
In the second half of the chapter Paul warns about the impact of our over eagerness to make sure every one is on the right path to salvation as I define the right path to be. The key verse is verse 15 which says in effect if your words and actions are so self centred that you will do them at the cost of the spiritual health of another brother or sister in Christ you no longer live in love. The following case study is a simple illustration that our actions can have terrible effects.
The parish is Little Muddleton in the Marsh where there are 150 souls and a small 12th century church which for 100 years has been very traditional in its practise of its faith. There are robes worn and stoles and communion is the common service and the BCP is often used and also the word is preached every Sunday. In to that parish comes a some what brash conservative evangelical with a distaste of all things which seem to be in the slightest tractarian. He decides that this poor misguided congregation need to see that there are some serious theological issues with what they are doing, and to some degree he is right.
So as incumbent he decides to lead from the front and stops robing and suggests that communion be once a month and takes the candles and frontals of the “altar”and starts calling it a table at which he stands at the north end when celebrating. He has a genuine love and desire that the people should grow in Christ but their ears become blocked to his faithful preaching because he has become a stumbling block to them. The issue of verse 16 then comes into play in that what is good becomes spoken of as evil.
The call is always to be a church that corrects error and that holds people to account but does it in a way that as verses 17- 19 puts it:
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
but verse 21 is a key to how we do it in that we are to correct and hold people accountable in a way that makes for peace and mutual unbuilding. But if the issue is do I wear a staple and stop some one hearing the gospel because off their upset and grief, if the issue is i will not go and have fellowship because I don’t like the songs or the lack of emphasis of the work of the Spirit in the sermon then I am in danger of causing others to stumble.
I learnt a simple song as a child about the concept of joy and it went like this;
This must surely mean
And others in between
Yes lets stand for truth and biblical teaching but wherever we affecting evangelism because of the divisions we exhibit to the world and where are we damaging the church of Christ. Lets live out the truth of chapter 15:5-7:
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Where can you start be a peacemaker and some one that builds up in your church, deanery or diocese.