Church: factions and fractions. Part 1

Anyone who has been part of a church for any length of time has survived (or not) some kind of disagreement.

Soon the much anticipated Living in Love and Faith Resources will be published by the Church of England working group who have been working on the church’s response to issues of sexuality and gender. This is one example of the kind of issue over which we can disagree.

This post explores what is the impact of impact of disagreement in the church. Factions and Fractions Part 2 explores how it might be possible to disagree but not be disagreeable.

This post is based on reflections on Philippians 4 which in my bible is titled: Closing appeal for steadfastness and unity

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

In this most loving and upbeat of all letters to the churches Paul planted, he closes in this extra-ordinary way: by dragging a shocking reality right out into the centre of the stage.  There are two people in this church who do not agree with one another. Paul is not even discreet, Paul names them!

Why does he choose to do that?

Why does he not do the ‘proper’ Anglican thing, of sweeping any disagreements under the carpet? Well, Paul is not British and he’s not Anglican.

I dare to suggest he also doesn’t do that because he knows that relationships are THE most important thing in the community of faith.

From time to time I teach a course I wrote myself, the title of which is ‘Loving Difficult People’. (I have often thought that there you have summarised in three simple words the entire gospel and the whole business of discipleship!)

But the course has a ‘sub-title’ as I explain to participants on the first week. The complete and more accurate title is ‘Loving Difficult People, of whom I am one’. Because everyone who comes on the course thinking that they are going to learn how to ‘sort out’ those difficult people in their lives must first of all confront the fact that they are themselves a difficult person for at least one but maybe for many. We are different, therefore we disagree; that’s all it takes.

Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in a 1000 places, writes

 “getting saved is easy, becoming a community is difficult, damnably difficult. We cannot have paradisiacal visions of hanging out with lovely, upbeat, beautiful people when we enter a Christian community. It is intricate and complex, many people of various moods, ideas, needs, experiences, gifts and injuries, desires, disappointments, blessings and losses, intelligence and stupidity, living in proximity and respect for one another and believingly worshipping God. It is not easy and it is not simple… The practice of resurrection is the intentional and deliberate decision to believe and participate in Resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death. But we have to grow up in Christ in communion with the saints, not in the privacy of our own hearts, not by taking moonlit walks along the beach, not by picking a few stimulating friends for spiritual aerobics, I am called to witness the slow miracle of Holy Spirit transformation within me and within my own mixed bag of a community.”

So how do we do this ‘damnably difficult’ task of becoming (or remaining) a community. What did Paul recommend? Let’s go back to Philippians 4 and the two women who have disagreed. Notice what Paul does NOT do: he doesn’t take sides, nor does he encourage anyone else to take sides. Nor does he exclude either Euodia or Synteche, nor does he suggest that anyone else should exclude them.

‘Taking sides’ and excluding are our default responses… look at the history of the church since the Reformation!

Instead Paul ‘pleads’ and he ‘longs’ and he expresses his heartfelt desire for relationships to be restored. He affirms them both as godly and hard working women, Paul valued them both.

Poor Euodia and Syntyche! Of all the reasons to get a mention in the book of God, being ‘disputatious’ is probably not the greatest. And yet there they are, bearing witness to the undeniable reality that simply being a Christian does not mean disagreement will never arise.

Well thank God for that.

The church of God is a community and a community is essentially a set of relationships. Some communities are bound by membership rules eg a sports club, some by a commonly held constitution and set of beliefs, like a political party. Other communities are defined by what they have in common and the story that makes them distinct for example: the ‘windrush’ generation.

What then is it that defines, describes or makes our community distinct?  We are a people called by God to live in loving relationship with God and loving relationship with one another.

What is the singular defining characteristic of this community?

What did Jesus say it should be?

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 13 verse 35

There has to be a defining feature that holds us together. Something that matters to us more than anything else. Praise God, it’s not the Church Representation Rules!

We have to be held together by relationship therefore we have to guard relationship. We are not a community of like-minded people, so we will of course disagree. We are not a community of similarly educated people. We are not a community with a monochrome cultural background. So much diversity and difference (alleluia) means that inspite of disgreement we must be held together by one defining characteristic. And that is love.

And what is this love? Well I can tell you for sure, it is not a warm fuzzy feeling. You do not have to have warm fuzzy feelings towards your brothers and sisters in faith.

But you are required to take a robust actions of love and what these should look like is fleshed out over and over again in the New Testament: we must act with compassion, with tender hearts, we must be ready to forgive one another, bear with one another, we must hold on to a mutual commitment to the well-being of the other.

Nothing says this better than the passage in Colossians 3 “therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity”.

Just as I was preparing this reflection, David and I took an evening off and enjoyed watching again one of our favourite films, one of the Star Wars films. If you don’t know anything about the Star Wars story (where have you been?) all you need to know for the point of this illustration is that it is an epic story of the battle between good and evil. And those that are on the side of the good refer frequently to the unseen connection that links them to one another and to “the force”. On meeting and on parting they frequently say “May the force be with you”. Their warriors and heroes do not triumph in their own strength but only do so because they have learned to tap into the good side of the force and are given gifts and energies they would not otherwise have had.

The spiritual analogy is not too difficult to see, I hope. We might translate this fictional force from the story of Star Wars, into the very real, actual but unseen presence and activity of God in our world and in our community.

Often the characters in that story speak about “a disturbance in the force”. If Paul knew of Stars Wars (an anachronism, I know) he might well have described Euodia’s and Syntyche’s disagreement as a ‘disturbance in the force’.

All of this got me thinking about another image for what it is that links us and characterises us:

It is this silken circle of fabric known as a parachute which we have used on many occasions to play games with the children in our messy church. The image of everyone holding on strongly around the edge of the parachute came to me very forcibly as a very good picture of who we are and how we are meant to be as a church community.

We are inextricably linked, like it or not: we are told to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. When one is down we feel down with them when one is up and has a joy, we are uplifted with them.

But when someone has a disagreement like that of Euodia and Syntche, it is like two people are yanking the fabric in opposing directions. A very bad disagreement threatens to tear a hole in the fabric, and the whole parachute therefore fails to link us and connect us. That is why Paul took this disagreement so seriously. That is why he called it out. Relationships matter.

Does that mean we are never to disagree? No, not at all. Disagreement is inevitable but that disagreement does not have to be damaging if commit ourselves to acting with an awareness of the way our actions affect others. Before you yank on the fabric think about the impact on the people next to you in the circle. What we do and what we say matters, but how we do what we do and how we say it, matters just as much.  If our disagreement has been born out of suspicion, fear, or judgementalism, then we are required to do all that we can to understand the other person’s position.  Even if we cannot agree then our actions must be compassionate, constructive, there must be a willingness in us to share a mutual responsibility for the welfare and well-being of the other.

We all carry wounds, weaknesses and worries (see Fractions and Factions Part 2). We all have sensitivities and subjects about which we are passionate. And because of that we inevitably hurt one another. We are not allowed to dismiss the other person simply because we disagree with them nor are we allowed to think them as just being ‘ too super sensitive’. All of us, myself included, deserve to be treated with respect, forgiveness and know the support of the rest of the community.

So next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone, especially with someone standing holding the same parachute as you in the same community, please ask yourself, ‘what effect will my reaction have on the fabric of love and trust that exists between us?’ Is there a way I can disagree that might be constructive?’

(Here are some phrases that can go a long way: ‘I’m perplexed as to how ….(xyz) came about, how do you see it?’, ‘could you help me to understand what just happened’, … ‘If something has gone wrong here, is there anything I can do that might help?’ or ‘maybe you are under a lot of pressure and simply didn’t notice that …’ NB these are almost always better said than emailed. Takes courage, I know).

Disagreeing constructively is the only way forward that doesn’t risk shredding the fabric and leaving the community in tatters. If we don’t have that fabric which is love, we have nothing. (1 Corinthians 13).

But IF we do… If we do all in we can in our power to love, to forgive, to restore, to heal, then our community will grow and flourish.

If I knew how to I would write the words of the prayer that we know of as ‘the grace’ in a spiral and/or embroider them on this parachute. Unless we are all holding on to them at all times the only thing we will become is a fractured bunch of single-minded individuals, not the body of Christ, not the community of Love.

So “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” Amen

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