The Tricky Nature of Loving Beyond Measure

During our Sunday morning gatherings I am currently in the middle of a series of messages focusing on what it is to be the Church in our day and age. Over the past two weeks we have looked at how the church is to be loved because Jesus loves it, and how being part of the church is not an option, but an integral part of what it means to be saved.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On both occasions I’ve quoted from one of my heroes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism. Right from the beginning he was an opponent. Just two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor he criticised him in a radio broadcast warning Germany against slipping into cult worship of its leader. He was also the first and virtually only person from the church who resisted Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews. He died a martyr, executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the prison where he was held captive was liberated.
Bonhoeffer’s short book Life Together is an exploration of Church life written during the time when he taught in an illegal underground seminary outlawed by the Nazis. Because it was written at a time when the German church was by and large caught up in idolatry of Nazism, it has profound insights into church life.
In his book he writes, “Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
In other words, we all have an ideal picture of what we believe our church should be like. But our picture, no matter how well informed by the Bible, will only be our picture not God’s. So before we can begin to fully appreciate what the church should be, we need to have our ideas broken down and shattered. If it is not, Bonhoeffer suggests, we will try and impose our picture of what the church should be like upon our church. All that will do is bring conflict and will end up destroying the very community I’m trying to build.
How many people do you know have left the church or criticise it because it hasn’t lived up to their expectations? My guess it is quite a few. These people, Bonhoeffer says, have a picture of what the Church should look like and their criticism is driven by the church’s failure to fulfil that picture. Yet their frustration and embarrassment is fuelled, not by a failure of the church, but their “idealised image” of the church.
We need to learn from this profound insight. Moving on from disappointment, frustration and embarrassment with the church is not easy and many people never recovered from their “great disillusionment.” As a result they remaining hurt, bitter and estranged. But it doesn’t need to be so.
In his book Bonhoeffer goes on to suggest that if you are frustrated with church and are willing to do something about it, then there is something you can do. The best place to start, he suggests, is to choose to love your brothers and sisters, particularly those causing you the most grief or frustration.
Being part of Jesus’ church is not easy. We are thrust into relationship with real, flesh-and-blood fallen people. Some are gentle, mature and lovable saints, but some are hard to live with, socially awkward, high-maintenance and simply difficult. And I’m talking about myself!
Yet there is a point that we all need to come to where we see that those we are criticising are just as messed up as I am, and that I am just as capable of hurting someone as the next person.
Rather than allowing my frustrations, hurts and criticism rule my thoughts and actions I choose to allow the grace of God and the love of God change me and my attitudes. As someone once said, “I haven’t really understood what it is to be part of God’s family until I’m called to love those members of God’s family that I find most difficult.”
So let’s continue to pray that by his grace God will enable us to be the church he desires us to be and that Jesus died for to enable us to become.
Stephen L Baxter

Conflict: A normal part of church life

In any community, church or group of people there are always a number of different ideas of how we should go about being people together.
To have some low level conflict of ideas and values is a normal part of human life, it is unavoidable.  It is no surprise that when differences are expressed, people can easily be offended and one can easily offend. Hurts happen. It is part of what it means to be people. The idea that there is such a thing as a conflict-free congregation is inconsistent with both reality and the Bible.Conflict and unity in the Church
In fact, some conflicts are part of the natural and necessary journey of being able to cooperate and work together. Research shows that groups function better when individuals are under a degree of stress, where conflict gives the opportunity for learning and growth and the development of skills, awareness, trust and hope. Healthy conflict helps create environments that are energizing, creative and natural.

Jesus was no stranger to conflict.

Sadly, however, although it is both necessary and ever-present in our churches, conflict also has the potential to be unhealthy, draining and unproductive. It can quickly escalate to alarming levels with significant destructive potential.
Jesus was no stranger to conflict. With his disciples he was constructive and character-building enabling them to grow to become the leaders they needed to be after he had left them. However, with the authorities, both religious and political, the conflict led to Jesus being crucified as a common criminal.
Conflict in the church today
In recent times, researchers into churches have noticed they are particularly vulnerable to intense and difficult behaviours and the devastating conflict that accompanies them. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations, A Systems Approach suggests that “Church conflict is a growth industry” and goes on to say that “not only are the number of incidences rising, but also the number of people who are stubborn, deceptive and mean.” I don’t know if what he says it true or not, but it does remind me that we live in a changing and complex world, and across the Western world the church faces significant challenges. Perhaps the stress this brings explains in part why we can become can become anxious and act in quite un-Christlike was to each other.
Jesus was very clear that the care and love of his disciples for each other is to be the key feature of their life together (John 13:34-35). Not only that, it is to be the key fruit that others are to look for. American theologian Francis Schaeffer suggested that Jesus is saying the world has the right to decide whether we are true disciples of Jesus on the basis of the love we show to other Christians. Jesus is talking about a real, observable unity, a practicing oneness, despite our differences.
Sadly, the church hasn’t always been a good witness in this area. We have allowed conflict to move from being healthy to becoming unhealthy and sometimes downright destructive. No wonder Paul pleads with those in the church at Corinth, where there was obvious conflict, to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10).
As you and your church face the challenges of living in our post-Christian, post-modern and secular world, as you discuss and have conflict with each other as to how best to respond to these stresses and pressures, let’s remember to encourage each other to love each other in the light of Jesus’ command.
To do so is to remember that our conflicts are taking place before a watching world and they will know if the church operates as the disciples of Jesus by how we “love one another” (John 13:35).
Stephen L Baxter