Bringing Reconciliation in a Divided World

113CongressSeveral weeks ago the results of a major mid-term election allowed Republicans to take the Senate, incumbents to get the boot or barely hold on to their seats, and pundits to have a field day diagnosing the issues related to campaigns and candidates alike.

While people surmised why votes went one way or another, nearly every local election made one fact clear: We are living in a divided nation.  Every winner can’t claim a total victory.  Sure, if you win by 51% of the vote, you win; but at the end of the day, it likely meant that you garnered only half of the voters at the ballot box.

This divide in American politics may strike fear in the hearts of people who simply want their representatives to govern.  Others find the results to be disheartening, hinting at continued gridlock in our nation’s capital.

But what if, from the point of view of the church, this division is an opportunity to help people find their way back to the Lord?

Think about it: The media enjoys divisive politics because it means attracting more viewers.  Politicians can rally their electoral base.  Even we viewers at home like a little drama in our politics as we tune out people who are either boring or non-confrontational (or have common-sense solutions, for that matter).

In all of this, there are few institutions that promote reconciliation and peacemaking.

Enter the church.  God’s purposes for the church not only transcend our society’s politics, they also seeks to bring reconciliation in places divided by all sorts of barriers.

This happened very early on: The day Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and starting speaking in a variety of languages.  To those gathered in Jerusalem at the time, it was a unifying moment: Each person heard the same gospel in their native tongue.  For once they had something in common.

As the church matured over time, the egalitarian nature of Christian community became a beacon of hope throughout the Roman Empire.  While citizens of the Empire thrived on inequality and hierarchy to manage power and prestige, the church gave everyone–regardless of socio-economic stature, race, ethnicity, or gender–a place at the table.

It was in his letters to the Corinthian churches, in particular, that Paul encouraged the church to spread the Gospel by bearing witness to the unity, harmony, and peace that Christ ushered into the world through the Holy Spirit.

The Bible says, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthains 5:16, 18-19).

In other words, when a person becomes a Christian, she is not a product of her culture or society any longer.  She is redeemed to Christ and brought into a relationship with God.  She is a new creation; and as a new creation, she becomes a citizen of the kingdom of God.

As citizens of the kingdom, Christians are called to be agents of reconciliation in a divided–and divisive–world.

Instead of taking sides, we are to stand on the side of Jesus.  Instead of touting our political victories or condemning the opposing team, we are to remind people that they are ultimately held accountable to God, who doesn’t claim any political party.

Christians are outsiders looking in, objective players who have a bigger vision than those who govern in the moment.

“So we are ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us” (v. 20).

An ambassador is one who goes to a foreign land to help people make peace with another nation.  In this context, Christians are to be peacemakers that help reconcile people to one another and, ultimately, to God.

Postscript:  I wrote about two weeks ago.  This week, I was disheartened to hear that the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown have escalated protests and violence in major cities, including here at the ATL.   The church needs to encourage local communities in reconciliation, foster conversations between neighborhoods and law-enforcement agencies, and promote honest conversations about responsibility, accountability, the threat of a sensational media, and race relations.  We will be in prayer for all the families involved in injustice and the on-going consequences of America’s love affair with guns and gun violence, which seems to be at the heart of most–if not all–of these conflicts of late.  –JVL

Sowing the Seed of Discord can Hamper the Good News of Christ

I am convinced that debates over Bible interpretation and theological arguments are the most destructive trends in church life.  I would even venture to say that a majority of conflicts throughout Christian history started over differing Bible interpretations.

Take a recent Baptist conflict for example.  It was just last year that the Georgia Baptist Convention withdrew fellowship (in other words, kick out) Druid Hills Baptist Church because Druid Hills has a female pastor.   The year before, the GBC did the same with First Baptist of Decatur, rupturing a relationship 148 years old.

Both communities debated the validity of their biblical call to faithful adherence to scripture.  People were hurt, lives were trampled, denominational relationships were ruptured.

The same can be said about other issues in church history ranging from slavery to homosexuality, alcohol use to infant baptism.  When a debate escalates over who is more “biblical” or “Christian,” then a conversation between friends can quickly devolve into a war among enemies.  It’s what late theologian Letty Russel calls “textual harassment.”

Does this advance the Gospel?  I doubt it; in fact, as a pastor, I hear so many people say that they don’t attend church any longer because they despise how Christians abuse each other with the Bible.   Organized religion, so the thought goes, only leads to violence and conflict.  (A closer look shows that organized religion isn’t so organized after all.)

“There are six things that the Lord hates,” wrote the author of Proverbs, “…A lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.”  Perhaps our focus on this text might bring about a conviction that bears testimony to the importance of unity in the Body of Christ.

I once heard of a deacon who was looking to oust his pastor because the deacon believed that the pastor was preaching against, you guessed it, the Bible.

He met with other deacons and Sunday school teachers.  He arranged to have a large group of allies attend the next business meeting to confront the pastor.  In the meeting, he gave a long speech about preaching “according to the Bible.”

Two factions grew out of the conflict, one for and one against the pastor.  People started back-biting and name-calling.  Attendance dwindled, finances became scarce.  The church eventually closed.  Both groups lost their home of worship.

When I heard this heart-wrenching story, all too common in many churches, I was reminded of the parable of the sower.  In the parable, Jesus states that the Word of God is like seed that spreads in all kinds of places, like rocky crags or rich soil.

Some well-intentioned churchgoers, like the deacon mentioned above, believe that when they advocate for what they believe is “biblical,” they are simply spreading seed where it belongs.

It is easy to confuse what we sow, for we may be sowing discord rather than Good News.  And, perhaps we are not the ones sowing seed.

According to Jesus, one of the places that the seed fails to grow is in the midst of a thorny, weed-infested patch of garden.  The seed takes root and grows, Jesus said, but then thorns choke out that plant until it sees better days.

Are we sowing what we beleive to be “God’s Word” when we are so adament about our interpretation, or are we merely the very thorns that choke out healthy, mature plants because we place our ideologies above relationships?

It was Arun Gandhi who once said, “People of the Book risk putting the book above the people.”

And Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Leaving Church, “The whole purpose of the Bible is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become the living words in the world for God’s sake.”*

In a world in which less and less people are willing to visit our churches, hear the Gospel, or even consider Jesus as their personal Savior, we need to get past our inter-church squibbles and put relationships ahead of division, ideology aside for unity.

To read more, see Bill Leonard, “The Bible Tells Me. So?” on http://www.abpnews.com.

Sources:
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 107.

Strive for unity in the midst of diversity

In one of his more passionate letters, Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to “be in agreement…that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10).   The Bible makes clear that Christians are to find agreement in the midst of diversity.  Paul’s contention with the Corinthian church was not that diversity existed—indeed that’s what made the churches in Corinth special—it was that diversity was not to distract from the type of unity that provided a clear, Christian witness of the Good News to unbelievers in Corinthian culture.

In recent years, we have seen a fragmentation of the Christian church rather than intentional movements toward the vision of unity that Paul expressed so long ago.  Three stories that ran in the news lately attest to divisions in the Christian Church.

The first came earlier this year when a new Lutheran denomination—the North American Lutheran Church—vowed to split from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  This came after the ELCA started allowing openly homosexual clergy to participate in church leadership.

Another story that made national news was the Georgia Baptist Convention’s decision to break historical ties with Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta because the church had a female co-pastor.  Never mind that the pastor, Rev. Mimi Walker, had been on the SBC pastorate role since 2004; and never mind that the church had given millions of dollars and hours of labor to the SBC since its founding in 1914.

And of course, there is the whole Catholic sexual abuse debacle that is making the news for the umpteenth time.  How many Catholic brothers and sisters will the Vatican offend before the Church takes some serious actions to avoid future violations and confront past abuses with some sense of transparency?

With countless other churches fighting over a variety of issues, it seems that the fragmentation Christ’s Body is the order of our day.  That’s not to say that the topics that cause divisions make for small squabbles in the first place.  Homosexuality, women in ministry, and clergy accountability require intense debate and examination.  Certainly, the debates will inevitably be heated and common ground hard to come by.

But have we, the global Christian Church, ever once considered that our witness is compromised due to such divisive conflicts?  Do we ever think how our rhetoric and public persona might fail to communicate the compassion that the lost severely need?  After all, Christianity is first and foremost about people and their need for eternal life, not about having all the answers to every theological conundrum that comes our way.

It would be naïve of me to think that every Christian is going to get along.  A plurality of denominations is a healthy asset to the global Church because we are a diverse people; however, does our own unique biblical interpretations, church polities, clergy callings, and worship styles have to alienate us from other churches in such polarized assaults?

I am not sure if I have an answer to that question.  Gosh, this article may even garner some heated emails from fellow Christians.  I do know, however, that our witness to the world does not negate our God-given niches in the Body of Christ.  It does demand some sense of unified compassion, grace, and mystery in a world of turmoil and uncertainty.

Frankly, I think that many people are tired with the Christian conflicts and controversies that pervade our churches.  In this age of punditry and bickering, I can do nothing other than repeat some heart-felt lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Cure Thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to Thy control.”