The early church was full of amazing things, wasn’t it? The Holy Spirit working in and among the people, the people living together, sharing all things in common, all seemingly working towards a common goal. It seems idyllic, doesn’t it?
Suddenly, the early church looks a lot more like your church doesn’t it? Identity politics, conflict, an ever shrinking idea of who is included in God’s kingdom and kin-dom, fighting, consultants, more fighting, and there’s someone, speaking a holy word into the conflict.
I mean, seriously! These guys were minutes away from the Holy Spirit blowing across them! They were weeks away from Jesus being lifted up after having been resurrected! Some of their members had walked alongside Jesus! Why can’t they get along?
And while some commentaries are talking about how to get through conflict, I want to examine the reason for the conflict.
You may remember a letter I posted in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook page, from an Easter visitor. He wrote:
I want you to know that I have enjoyed your services in the past, but the sermon you offered at the Easter service left me angry and disappointed. You had a perfect opportunity to create a hall of inclusion and while you preached such, I found the message to be very different.
People such as myself and my family disagree with creating entitlements for specific groups such as the LGBTQ community because it is a failed attempt to create inclusion and celebrate diversity. Acknowledging these groups and creating entitlements only further divides the country. It pulls people apart more than it brings them together. Other than the deep south, where true discrimination still exists, people don’t care. It’s old news. Everyone is different. Everyone gets picked at some point and biases exist for everyone. It’s part of dealing with life and growing up. Giving people whatever they want because they think they deserve it is not love. Love is teaching people the realities of life and helping them work through it. Not painting some poetic truth of what life should be and creating special buckets for everyone that thinks they deserve one. We are Americans.
I struggled with how to respond, but I knew that backing down from full inclusion of all people was not the way to go.
Acts 15 has reminded me that the Gospel of Christ is wildly inclusive. People who could not have been included (non-Jews! uncircumcised!) are fully included. There is no litmus test, no exclusion based on things like race, gender identity, sexual orientation. You’re not discriminated against because you didn’t have a certain ritual.
Peter says it best, “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.”
How can we do any less?
Now mind you, I know that full inclusion means that there will be conflict. In fact, taking a stand in any way means that there will be conflict. Notice something else about the Acts passage—even though there was dissension between them, Paul and Barnabas continued to minister together. That is grace.
In fact, there’s a lot of grace. Conflict doesn’t have to be the end of ministry. The Church would go on to survive this conflict, and nearly 2,000 years of conflict after. By the way, just a short time after this conflict, 15:22 reads, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided…” In other words, consensus on other issues can come soon after disagreement.
So if you are in a contentious situation in your church, take heart. It is deep in our church DNA to have conflict. Do not lose hope. The grace of God is bigger than conflict, and you can get through it.
Two thousand years ago, circumcision was a debate in our early ancestors. Think how ridiculous it would be for a congregation to require that now. Some day, no one will give a second thought to full LGBTQ inclusion. They will read our histories and think, “No LGBTQ inclusion? How did they not know that there is no distinction between them and us?”
Where will this text take you this week?
- Can your church use a blueprint for navigating conflict? This text offers some ideas.
- Here in the United States, we are polarized in our neighborhoods, our campuses, and even our churches. Is there a way out of that polarization?
- What other things (besides LGBTQ inclusion) are creating conflict in today’s churches? How do they compare to circumcision in the early church?
- Some have said that we are too political in the church, and that the so-called “identity politics” are bringing the world into the church. What are your thoughts on that? Are there worldly issues that must be considered in church?
- Navigating conflict in our churches and our world requires relationships. Where are the relationships in your community that can help you navigate conflict?
I pray blessings on you this week as you prepare.
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).
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