At the heart of [D]mergent burns the desire for the church to take on the difficult demands of a dialogue about where God is leading. What kinds of new ways does God seek to open up to us the grace of God’s reign? What traditions must we cling to as important expressions of our common life? What cherished orthodoxies must we be willing to set down as tools for a different time and place? These are difficult questions for us to ask, let alone to be called to answer. But the luxury of avoiding these thorny conversations has long since passed. We have no choice. The question is not whether we will have to confront change, but how will we do so in constructive ways? What follows is my small contribution in trying to set a loving framework for the conversation.
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
The church regularly falls short of its ideals. This is especially apparent when the church chooses to avoid healthy practices of communication, when we fall prey to “passive/aggression.” Because Christians are sinners, they are subject to the same sins as everyone else. In fact, because Christians claim to be following Jesus, their failure to live faithfully often appears to everyone else as even more egregious. “To those whom much is given, much is expected . . .” When strife and division gain a foothold in the church, we not only begin to rebuild walls we claim have been torn down in Christ, but we risk losing authority and credibility when acting as witnesses to the world of Christ’s reconciling love. If we, who claim to be reconciled to one another through Christ, live as though division still predominates, how can we expect everyone else to hear the good news that God has healed our fragmented world? The church’s vocation is to stand as a sign of the healing God intends for a fallen creation.
To say that the church must be vigilant in living out its witness to reconciliation, however, is not to say that the church ought to be free from conflict. On the contrary, conflict is an inevitable, even necessary, part of living together as a community of faith. Therefore, the question is not, “Will there be conflict?” but rather, “How will we deal with the inevitable conflict that arises as followers of Jesus?” Will we, as the writer of Ephesians admonishes, “speak the truth in love” to promote “the body’s growth in building itself up in love?” That is the true test of the church’s communication, a true test of its faithfulness.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector” (Matt 18:15-17).
Being a Christian is difficult. Following Jesus requires of us things that the rest of the world finds either uncomfortable or futile. One of the things Jesus commands of his followers is that they love one another enough to confront. Conventional wisdom says that we avoid confronting people we love, precisely because we do not want to hurt them. If someone behaves badly, we justify our silence by saying that we love the person too much to inflict the inevitable pain our confrontation of their sin would cause. According to the way Jesus sees interactions within the church, our failure to be honest with one another belies our claims of love for the person who has hurt us. True love requires perseverance through the inevitable pain that comes with living in covenant with another. As Stanley Hauerwas notes, “That we are to do so must surely be because the peace that Jesus brings is not a peace of rest [i.e., the absence of discomfort] but rather a peace of truth. Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace without truthfulness cannot help but be deadly” (Stanley Hauerwas, Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church” in The Hauerwas Reader, 322).
The Ephesians writer’s admonition to speak the truth in love is tempered by Matthew’s instruction to speak first with the party by which one has been aggrieved. One acts against the best interests of the community by failing to speak in private with the other person before taking concerns public. Using “grapevines” or third party intermediaries to deliver messages one cannot bring oneself to deliver in person violates Matthew’s instruction to speak directly with the person who has committed the offense.
What is at stake in the way the church communicates has less to do with “you and me” than with the health of the body. One’s personal feelings are tempered by communal considerations (cf. Acts 5:1-11; Acts 13:4-12; 1 Cor 4:18-5:5; 2 Thess 3:6-14). Because the church is the body, whose head is Christ, “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,” paramount consideration must be given to engaging in relationships that encourage “the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Again, that does not mean that there will not be conflict within the church—but that the health of the church is gauged by its reaction to conflict. Do people take responsibility for their anger and frustration? Do they seek out those who have offended them before they speak about their hurt? Is the church actively promoting healthy communication by resisting the urge to hear criticisms without the offender present?
The church, if it is to be a community of reconciliation, is unable to ignore the conflict between Christians precisely to the extent that the implications are greater than any single relationship. If I am correct in my assertion about the necessity of being honest with those we believe have harmed us, the implications for the church are staggering. No longer is it acceptable, either to speak ill of one who has offended us before having confronted him or her or to stand passively by while another speaks ill of an offender without instructing that person to go to the one who has offended and urge them to speak the truth in love. The confrontation of sin and division within the church, therefore, takes on a new urgency—less because of people’s individual feelings (as important as they are) than because the health of the body of Christ is at stake.
Peacemaking, in this sense, does not mean the absence of conflict at any cost. That is to say, peacemaking, on this account, can never be a passive acceptance of sin and division, in the name of “not stirring things up.” Rather, true peace will only come about in the life of the church when we are capable of actively speaking directly to one another the truth in love. Avoiding conflict, ignoring inappropriate behavior, turning a blind eye to sins against the body are actions that become a very real part of the profound division they naively seek to circumvent.
If our first priority as the church is to teach people how to follow Jesus, and if Jesus is the one from whom we take our cues, face-to-face honesty is not an option; it’s the cost of doing business.