Conflict: A Christian Tradition

September 4, 2011

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 12
     Matthew 18:15-20

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


There is a story I’ve told on appropriate occasions over the years and most recently at the Diocesan Synod this weekend that bears repeating in light of today’s Gospel, for the longer I’m in this business the truer I know it to be:


A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue's 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi." Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi. "Well," the young rabbi responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream." "Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."


We can infer from today’s reading that conflict in the church may be one of our oldest traditions as well. The fledgling Matthean community appears to have been struggling with how to resolve differences in a “Christian” manner. The conflicts must have been threatening enough that Matthew chose to attribute to Jesus the means of suppressing them. Or maybe Jesus did suggest this approach, but not for a church he did not envision or found, but for the community of disciples that travelled with him. However, I have my doubts. What seems more probable to me is that Matthew took a teaching by Jesus to treat those we are in conflict with respect but didn’t stop there. He went on to give power to church leaders to rid themselves of those in their midst who did not conform or to at least intimidate them into silence. Religion and diversity are rarely comfortable with each other. 


My skepticism that Matthew is reflecting Jesus’ approach to conflict is triggered by Jesus’ appreciation of diversity as seen in the company he kept that included tax collectors and gentiles, his willingness to be a controversial thorn in the side of those who were protectors of the religion of his day, and his unwillingness to use power in place of love to transform. 


I suspect Jesus’ willingness to speak truth to power would not be welcomed in most “Christian” congregations then or now. I can see churchwardens throughout the ages, following Matthew’s approach, taking Jesus aside at morning tea to suggest that his disruptive behavior is unchristian and is not going to be tolerated any longer. Understanding that fear, not hate, is the opposite of love he would not have been cowed into submission by that conversation. It is likely they would not have been pleased by his loving response. They might have even threatened to call a general meeting of the congregation to censor him, much to Jesus’ amusement.


In my experience, congregations, and certainly clergy (including yours truly) are not fond of conflict, but you wouldn’t know it by our behaviour.


There is a wonderful Greek word, adiaphora that in a Christian context means “those things not necessary for salvation.” Anglicans particularly enjoy fighting over adiaphora. My favourite example is from the years just prior to the Civil War in America. At their General Convention, Anglicans fought loudly over whether or not it was permissible to put flowers on the altar while avoiding altogether the debate raging outside the church’s stained glass windows over the morality of slavery.


I have often wondered what is the appeal of fighting over adiaphora. After many such battles I have come to the conclusion that such squabbles channel conflict that is inherent to any relationship or community in a direction that won’t fundamentally transform it. In other words, such conflict is the friend of the status quo. They keep us from confronting things that matter in terms of the Gospel.


During our immersion in grandchildren on our holiday we heard plenty of squabbles over adiaphora, as you might imagine. Who gets to decide on what to watch on TV? What time is bedtime? What fast food restaurant are we going to stop at on road trips? Whose turn is it to play with granddad’s iPad? None of these squabbles, no matter how they were resolved at the time, changed anything. I know this because the next day those squabbles were all repeated.


But I don’t want to pick on kids. While in North America I got to watch up close and personal “grown-ups” squabble over raising the debt ceiling of the US government. It was a manufactured conflict that had the potential of doing great harm and did do some, but it changed nothing. It was adiaphora. It was a distraction from changing the status quo. No new jobs were created by it.


Squabbles over adiaphora make it seem all conflict is bad; something to be avoided. But conflict can be the energy behind creativity; the engine of evolution; the seasoning in human diversity; the propellant to self-understanding. Without it there would be no peace. Without it there would be no justice.


This weekend the Auckland Diocese held its annual synod to conduct its business. In recent years the Synod hasn’t even summoned up the energy to fight over adiaphora. But this year, thanks in large part to your response to Geno’s exclusion from the discernment process there were two resolutions submitted guaranteed to generate creative conflict. Glynn submitted both and Margaret Bedggood seconded the first. The first concerned removing sexual orientation and being in a committed same-sex relationship as impediments to the discernment, ordination and licensing of gay and lesbian members to any lay or ordained offices. 


The second called for rejection of the proposed Anglican Covenant, which gives authority over all jurisdictions in the Communion to a Standing Committee dominated by Primates. This would not only fundamentally change Anglicanism; it is a thinly veiled attempt to provide a means of punishing the provinces in the Communion that no longer discriminate against its gay and lesbian members.


As I prepared this sermon I did not know the outcome. But the outcome is not critical to my point about conflict. However, I now know that Anglicans in Auckland by significant margins want the General Synod to reject the Anglican Covenant and do want to end discrimination against those in the GLBT community in a committed relationship who seek ordination. 


With Jesus as my example, I challenge us to welcome conflict that is about transformation. Without conflict the results this weekend would not have happened. Conflict isn’t the problem but how we conduct it. Or as one preacher put it, “Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.” [i]


At the end of today’s Gospel is something else Jesus didn’t say, but which I think the disciples discovered very early on was true, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


When Jesus is amongst us and not being tossed from the congregation as disruptive we will not treat our opponents as the enemy ascribing to them motives meaner than our own. We will listen and seek to understand, building bridges, not burning them. We will pursue profound questions rather than seek practical answers. We will stop trying to correct the faults of others and work on our own. We will welcome diversity, justice and peace. We will be more creative by letting go of fighting the existing reality to build a new one that makes the present one obsolete.


Creative conflict gives us the opportunity to unleash God on the world and in our lives. 


Today after the service we are meeting as a congregation not to consider where we stand today or stood yesterday, but to envision the direction we wish to move. May it not focus on adiaphora but making Jesus present to a world desperate for his love embodied in us. To do so will likely invite conflict, but let us embrace it. Let that be what future generations say is our tradition.


[i] Max Lucado

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