“Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
It is widely recognized that the first century church – the folk who were the recipients of the letters we now recognize as scripture – were a contentious lot. They fought and fought and fought some more. Not mostly with outsiders, mind you, but among themselves.
It’s easy to tsk-tsk about this and imagine our peaceful congregations to be so superior.
But I’m not so sure we have this right.
My reading of the accounts of early church controversy don’t lead me to conclude that the leaders of that church were scandalized by the reality of controversy. No, it seems they were put off by the SPIRIT of the controversy. Paul’s observation above – from the end of his deeply theological treatise to the church in Rome – doesn’t condemn varieties of theological and practical conviction. Far from it, Paul seems to endorse varieties of conviction and enjoins all to be convinced whatever their conclusion. What he condemns is controversy that demeans and belittles rather than respects and honors.
For as long as I’ve been in a pastoral role, I’ve been party to a universal pastoral lament, “Oh….if only I could really say what I wanted to say – about theology, or social issues, or politics, or money, or whatever.”
In the wake of the massacre at The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando a couple weeks ago, I heard this lament again; clergy lamenting their own self-censoring in the apparent conviction that it is either inappropriate or else dangerously self-destructive to say what’s really in their hearts and on their minds.
I’m appalled at this. If there is any place in human society where it should be assumed that hard and difficult and contentious questions will be muddled through, I believe that place is church.
Now I wasn’t born yesterday (yes, I know that’s observationally obvious), and I know that many congregations are, in fact, NOT safe places for difficult conversations. But why is that? I believe partly leaders – clergy – must shoulder historical responsibility for this fact. Collectively we’ve evaded the difficult and controversial for so long that many of our people have come to believe that difficult questions have no place in church. They’ve come to believe that the pastor is bad if she/he raises hard and controversial questions. But in fact there are disciplines and practices that can teach and empower a community to address the uncomfortable. These practices and skills are not easy to learn and it takes courage and intention and perseverance to teach them. These disciplines are only learned after intentional work and over very long periods of practice and practice and practice. In other words, it’s VERY HARD WORK for a congregation to learn to be a place where respect and honesty run so deep that we can honestly disagree with each other and still gather in genuine love at the Table.
But should ministry be easy? I don’t think so. Unless we as leaders are ready to engage our people at the points of greatest challenge, I’m not sure we are fit to be leaders in the essential work of modelling what it means to follow Jesus in an increasingly secularized and polarized society.
It is, I believe a fascinating and seemingly ironic reality that those churches which engender the most constructive passion for ministry and service are those where the members have learned to honestly and caringly disagree with each other. Then, out of that disagreement they find ways to forge sufficient common ground to act together in the name of Christ.
There are some essential traits for leaders in this kind of system. Leaders in these kinds of systems need to be sufficiently self-aware and self-confident to say what they really think and not be surprised or wounded or insecure when people disagree with them. These leaders are strong and articulate, but they don’t expect to always get their own way. And when their members DO disagree with them (which they will!), they do not retreat to a corner and lick their wounds, but they THANK their members for their honesty and genuinely seek to better understand what motivates the disagreement.
Yes, that’s a tall order. But whoever said that following Jesus should be easy? Let’s get at it. If you need help to do so, find a colleague or friend or mentor who can help you learn these skills. And God will be with you. I’m sure of it!
With Great Hope!
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