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Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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C-JR-Zoo 2013-11-18Forgiveness is a process that can be short in childhood and long in adulthood.

The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26, NIV).

But forgiveness is a process that sometimes, oftentimes, lasts much longer than one day. It happens in phases that stretch beyond literal sunsets. Lewis B. Smedes’ book Forgive and Forget delineates those phases: hurt, hate, healing, and coming together. After the hurt naturally comes hatred, or at least dislike. When we move beyond hatred, we can find inner healing with strength from God. Then we can have power to attempt reconciliation with the wrongdoer.

Sometimes we skip phases. Sometimes the phases change order. But the phases exist. Forgiveness is a process.

When we’re little children, that process might happen in a minute. “Ouch, you hit me!” A few seconds later: “You’re not my friend any more!” And then the children are playing together again.

In adulthood the process might take years. One day is not long enough to hold all four phases.

Plutarch en.wikipedia.orgWhat then do we do with Ephesians 4:26? Maybe we should see it as a hyperbolic statement designed to guide us in right living. That kind of statement was common when Ephesians was written. Plutarch (ca. 45-120 CE) in his Moralia wrote about “the Pythagoreans, who, though related not at all by birth, yet sharing a common discipline, if ever they were led by anger into recrimination, never let the sun go down before they joined right hands, embraced each other, and were reconciled.”

I doubt that a group of people would actually live by that principle. If a group were to do it, however, I suppose a group of philosophers like the Pythagoreans might be the most likely to do so. Most of us are not philosophers, at least not professional ones. On our best days, we might think before we act, but not that much.

Despite the idealism of Ephesians, Plutarch, and the Pythagoreans, they can teach us the importance of being intentional and active in the forgiveness process. We should not passively wait for forgiveness to happen by itself. We should not assume that forgiveness is unnecessary. We need to remember that forgiveness is a process. We need to give that process time to happen. But we need to stay moving through the process. Don’t neglect it. Don’t give up.

No matter how long your sunset takes, become a forgiver.

_________________________

Thanks to Haley Chrisman of the Park Avenue Church of Christ young adult class for the observation about the shortness of the forgiveness process in childhood. Thanks to commentator Andrew T. Lincoln for drawing my attention to Plutarch.

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All groups of people experience conflict, and we need to deal with it in ways that help people and glorify God. The book of Philippians gives us some guidance.

The occasion that spurs the four-chapter letter appears near the end:

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Two women are experiencing conflict. What’s the solution? Rejoicing:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Are you in conflict with someone? Get some joy!

(Day 344: Philippians 1-4)

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Apparently some people are saying that Paul isn’t competent as a minister, and in Second Corinthians he responds to that attack. That letter’s conclusion, however, draws his readers’ attention away from the controversy and onto themselves: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Cor 13:5).

When controversies vie for our attention, let’s not get so caught up in the hoopla that we neglect introspection. Instead of focusing excessively on whether others are living rightly, let’s consider our own faithfulness and pray for the strength to persevere and improve.

(Day 339: Second Corinthians 10-13)

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In today’s reading, Christians in Corinth apparently have been experiencing conflict over their gifts. People are claiming to be better than others because of their gifts. Paul reminds his readers that the church is called to unity. All Christians, with their respective gifts, are important members in the body of Christ. The author says this with catchy metaphors:

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

Then he tells of “the most excellent way,” something that can unite people of diverse talents and passions: love. The way of love moves us beyond petty squabbles.

(Day 335: First Corinthians 12-14)

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We live in an age of church scandals. News media highlight them; people talk about them; the church publicly suffers from them.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we in the church should pursue unity. Unity doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. It means dealing with conflict in faithful and healthy ways, and broadcasting church conflicts to the world beyond the church is neither faithful nor healthy (1 Cor 6:1).

(Day 333: First Corinthians 5-8)

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Two cultural groups are in conflict. They don’t like each other. They see life differently. They even eat differently. In the Way of Christ, however, those groups experience peace through God’s righteousness.

This righteousness [of] God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood…. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God…

Notice that, according to Romans 3, the answer to inter-group conflict is not any human effort. The solution is God’s righteousness, not our own. Of course God invites us to participate in that work of reconciliation. We have roles to play, but true peace is the result only of God’s work through people.

(Day 327: Romans 1-3)

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