Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover over all disagreements with niceness. Jesus in his teaching in our gospel lesson today seems to proceed on the baseline assumption that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion.
As we all know, honesty and compassion are all too rarely the watchwords of our church conflicts. Many times anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or openly hostile entrenched positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church permanently. The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ hemorrhaging members and vitality. There must be another way.
Jesus provides us another way in our gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. We are to take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.
If that conversation does not yield fruit, we create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.
Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Hooray!
But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can then apply to our fellow church members?
When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s showboating pride and self-satisfaction versus the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector would then be to realize that beneath the outer façade of combativeness, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realize that we ourselves might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?
Zaccheus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and filthy rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. How then can we treat a fellow church member crosswise with us like Jesus treats Zaccheus? We can invite this member to share her gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zaccheus. And most importantly, we can share table fellowship together, in the parish hall, at the altar, in one another’s homes.
That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.
What about gentiles? If we are to treat church members with whom we disagree as gentiles, how does Jesus teach us by example to behave toward them?
One of Jesus’ most famous encounters with a gentile was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. Her clever and persistent response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften and gentle and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.
We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but over a distance. For the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or our neighbors to leave the church, this story proves that healing can occur over distance, a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is, like Jesus, recognizing the faith of the gentile. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and the faith of those from who we are estranged. It might be a path to healing we never expected.
And so we see that this gospel lesson, in fact, does not give us license to get rid of people we don’t like, to ostracize troublemakers and let silence and distance be the arbiters of church conflict. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.
All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast this question of the theology of sexuality or that knock-down drag-out over the carpet color in the nave. We have the power to bind and to loose.
With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.
Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.