Processing conflict in the church: Matthew 18 and beyond

One of the more difficult things to handle in the life of the church is conflict. It is inevitable that conflict occurs, because people are people. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on what to do when there is conflict.

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

(Mat 18:15-17)

The principles are pretty straight forward. At the heart of Jesus instruction is the desire to regain a relationship. By going to the offending person privately you have a much higher chance of successfully convincing them they have harmed you. Very often we tell an authority and the authority confronts the person in question. This doesn’t communicate the same commitment to relationship that going privately does. People are less likely to become afraid if it is just a peer that confronts them. When trying to get through to a dysfunctional person you want to do everything you can to affirm how much your relationship with them matters to you so they don’t feel condemned, shamed and become defensive. If you desire someone to change you want them to understand their actions are wrong. You don’t want them to feel like they are a horrible person. The goal isn’t to make people feel bad or punish them, it is to help people become safe, functional members of your community.

Don’t be legalistic about this rule. If there is conflict between two people and they are already cynical and distrustful of each other having them meet privately probably will just make things worse. The question you have to ask is “Who is the best person to talk to the dysfunctional person and what is the best way to talk to them?” Consider your plan of action carefully and look for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.

Perhaps there is some other crisis that is more important and the issue at hand can wait. If someone’s dad died you don’t confront them on how they don’t do a good enough job cleaning the church bathroom. There is an obvious judgment call that needs to be made. If the person is continually damaging others you accelerate the process. If the problem isn’t a major one then just wait until it is a good time to talk to them.

Sometimes talking to someone one on one doesn’t work. The next step is to escalate by confronting the person with one or two others. The offending person might be in denial, they might think the problem is just you. By bringing more people in to the situation you can establish that the problem isn’t just the figment of someone’s imagination.

Remember to give people time. There are a lot of honest people that don’t react well to an initial confrontation but after some time and the emotions settle they come around. Give people the time to process what they heard. I’ve taken months to talk to someone just because I know they were going through a really rough time and they aren’t coping in a healthy way.

If having two or three people confront the person doesn’t work the next step is to apply more leverage. At this point you are starting to pick between bad and worse options. Exposing someone’s failings to a group of people is going to do some damage to everyone involved. It is a difficult thing for most people to do. My guess is that well over half of the world would rather let things slide than risk hurting someone’s feelings by telling them a difficult truth. Sometimes this bad option is better than the worse option of doing nothing.

It is a drastic step but it is good for a couple of reasons. Some people will respond if several of their best friends tell them they are in the wrong. When taking the issue to the whole church you have to have a strong case against someone that would past the scrutiny of several people. Notice there is no room in this for heavy handed backroom tactics by leaders. How many controlling church leaders conveniently punt out their critic’s one or two at a time and tell the rest of the congregation their very biased version of the story?

If the whole community can’t convince someone to stop hurting others then they should be removed from the group until they are safe again. It is really important that this is communicated. Regardless of what you say people will come away feeling worthless and condemned but it is worse if you treat them like they are worthless. Don’t ever write people off. Always leave the door open to reconciliation and restoration.

Now there are times in which this process doesn’t fit the situation and it is appropriate to skip or modify steps. In most cases the primary goal is to restore relationship but if that appears unlikely then your goal is to keep people safe.

If the offending person is abusive don’t expect an alleged victim to talk to them in private so they can be abused again.

If there is an established pattern of abuse by someone in a position of power and previous attempts to confront the person have failed there isn’t any point to sending another person to confront them personally. Abusive leaders have very effectively hid behind a truncated legalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words here. As soon as someone confronts them they go on the offensive and discredit the person that confronted them. Many honest people have been labeled divisive or rebellious just for asking the wrong questions.

Now if you don’t follow step one the many leaders will complain that you didn’t follow the procedure. In some cases this is a legitimate but separate issue. Just because someone is bringing up issues in a poor way it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t relevant or true. If someone has a problem with me I’d hope they could tell me personally, or at least tell someone else we both trust and talk about it before it becomes the topic of gossip. However just because someone doesn’t confront someone the best way doesn’t mean their complaint is illegitimate. It is rarely easy but a good leader will make an attempt to see past the misguided actions or inflammatory words of a critic and consider the kernel of truth that might be found in the complaint. It is a credit to a leader when they have people around them that can see through the kerfuffle and say “you know so and so has a point here.” Counter accusations are not a defense for sinful behavior.

There are times when following Jesus’ directions here isn’t enough. If there are allegations of abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual there needs to be a proper investigation by an appropriate authority. Often in cases of abuse or exploitation what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more going on that is concealed. We need people looking in to the situation with the ability to get to the bottom of things. This usually involves social safety agencies, child protection services, and law enforcement. It can turn out to be a big mess but the alternative is worse. Far too often churches have been satisfied with shallow investigations while abuse continues. Victims often grow up to be abusers and the cycle continues.

If you know with great assurance that someone is a danger to others your first priority must be the protection of innocent people. If you have firm evidence some one sexually assaulted someone in your church you make sure they don’t go anywhere near the alleged victim or other potential victims until a thorough investigation is finished.

Why do I feel the freedom to more loosely interpret Jesus’s instructions? Because Jesus didn’t always follow the procedure he outlined in Matthew 18.

Read through Matthew 23. Did Jesus personally approach the Pharisees in private before lambasting them publicly? Paul corrected Peter in front of a whole crowd of people (Gal 2:14). Paul pointed out the false teaching and faults of the self-proclaimed super-apostles in a letter. He had no opportunity to confront them directly. It doesn’t appear that John confronted Diotrophes in person either (3John 1:9-10). There are lots of examples where it wasn’t feasible to confront someone personally.

In general I see Jesus’s priorities following along two lines. If it is feasible do what you can to restore relationship causing the least amount damage. Failing that do what you need to do to ensure people are safe.

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Above Reproach

A recent controversy surrounding a prominent author and perceived leader in organic church circles lead me to come back to scripture and consider one of Paul’s qualifications for leadership. In one of his letter’s to Timothy Paul wrote:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1Ti 3:2-3)

The one qualification I looked at is the first one. What does it mean to be “above reproach?” Digging into my lexicon I find that the greek word here is anepilemptos which more literally means “unable to take hold of” or “unable to seize.” It carries the meaning being unassailable or beyond rebuke or disapproval. As I size it up I’d say that leaders must be free of any potential legitimate accusations about their character or actions.

Looking at the rest of Paul’s life I’d say that being above reproach doesn’t necessarily being perfect or sinless. Paul confessed his own weaknesses (2Cor 1:8), sin (Rom 7:15), inabilities (2Cor 11:6), and the dark aspects of his past (Acts 26:11). One key aspect of being above reproach is to not have anything hidden that people can accuse you of. Bringing our past in to the light is one indicator that we have truly changed.

Another indicator that we have truly changed is whether we are willing to make amends with the people we have hurt. If we have truly taken ownership of our mistakes and we truly care about the people we have harmed we will do what we can to remedy them. Far too often leaders claim they have repented but just ignore the carnage left in their wake.

To be above reproach is to act with integrity and consistently exhibit Godly character and to be honest and upfront when making mistakes or struggling with sin. There should be legitimate concern if there is a pattern of evasion or dishonesty about the past. If a potential or current leader gets defensive quickly when questioned that is another warning sign.

It has been disastrous when we don’t hold our leaders to account. So many have found themselves in high profile positions and when the truth of their flagrant sin and pattern of deception is revealed it sets off a terrible explosion in the body Christ. The damage reaches far and wide. Some leaders are abusive and exploit others and the damage can go on for years. It is one of the reasons we have so many wounded Christians. This keeps happening because we don’t require our leaders to be above reproach.

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Quotes from The walking dead

The weak people.  The people like me.  We have inherited the earth.

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The difference between Western and Eastern Christianity

I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”

It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.

Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.

What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.

Found here

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Brené Brown: Listening to shame

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One of the most misunderstood concepts in the church is grace.  I’ve seen many flowery and convoluted definitions of this word which betray its simple and profound meaning.

Grace is favour!

It means more simply “an approving attitude; good will.”

Grace is not merited!

When it is explained that God has restored our relationship with by grace, it means that God decided that he approves of us and takes pleasure in us.  There is nothing we have done to earn it or deserve it.

From our vantage point it seems as though there is an ebb and flow to our relationship with God.  It feels like we lose his favour when we indulge in pride, selfishness or envy.  If we stray too far we lose our usefulness to God and his agenda and we become worthless and if we become too worthless, then God must, in his holiness take harsh measures to give us the punishment we deserve.  In some twisted way we believe God’s favour is unearned, by his disfavour is completely earned.

Many assume that we can become like God by knowing God’s character and expectations and striving to live up to them.  Some are more nuanced in that they see God’s grace as his spiritual power strengthening us to live better in order to please him.

I think there is a better path, one that is less traveled.  One that involves a lot less striving and lot more transformation.  It comes from knowing God’s love and importantly our own sense of worth to God.  This is the one great lesson I’ve learned in my years.  Once I came to know the great value God places on my life it began to infect the way I saw myself and everyone else.  All of the sudden I came to appreciate God so much more and I came to appreciate what he appreciated.  With all that acceptance and love I came to know love for others in deep and profound ways.  While I can’t proclaim that I like everyone, knowing God’s love for very unlikable people has given me incredible patience and mercy for people.

Knowing God’s love and the inherent worthiness of everyone around me regardless of the choices they make has changed my perception and values.  I don’t steal from people because I care about them, not because I’m striving to live up to some standard.  It isn’t even a decision I have to make, I just care.  People matter to me even when they treat me like garbage.

In this path the great obstacle is shame.  No amount of sin can separate me from the love of God, but my personal response to my sin can lead me to retreat from the light in to blindness and darkness. God is always there but I grow callous and insensitive.  Shame is a personal sense of unworthiness.  If I feel unworthy then I hide and the more I invest my personal resources in hiding how truly unworthy I become the more I begin to fear the light.  Instead of embracing the God of light I hide from him and then begin to strive to make myself worthy which inevitably ends in failure and more shame.  The cycle continues.  This is the life most Christians live, and the concept of salvation is just a free ticket in to heaven instead of something much more transformative.

I have stopped trying to be a good Christian and I simply believe that God has deemed me and everyone else worthy of His love.  As that truth penetrates my heart and mind I end up doing and saying things that I never would have if I was striving to live up to a standard.

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12 thoughts I’ve grappled with in 2012

1. God is love and holy and these two attributes complement each other and should not be understood to be in tension with each other.

2. Righteousness is purity in values, conduct and love. It isn’t austere perfectionism.

3. The distance we feel from God is rooted in our own shame and sense of unworthiness. God does not withdraw because of our lack of perfection.

4. The path to righteousness is found in knowing God’s love for yourself and others. When you know such love you begin to exude it and living with that love inspires and motivates wonderful care, compassion and selflessness.

5. God is always with us, but we become blinded to his presence when live in shame.

6. God’s divine judgement will be severe for some, but it will be fair. I expect to find out that God’s kindness and compassion will be much stronger than many religious people believe.

7. The biggest problem in the church isn’t how it organizes itself; it is the use of fear, coercion, and shame to manipulate people in to behaving better.

8. Those Christians that continually offer sweeping condemnations of the church generate much more heat than light and often betray their own theology of God’s grace.

9. Everyone is worthy because the biggest player in the marketplace values us this way.

10. The purpose of the church is to express the fellowship of the Trinity in our relationships

11. The key to faithfulness in church life is sharing truly “good news” and expressing the love and truth of our saviour.

12. The path of deeper faith is to stop using human tools to motivate and manipulate people. When you see people engage in acts of unselfish love free from outsider pressure it can restore your faith in church.

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What changed my world this year Part 1: Brene Brown on Shame at Tedx

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The poverty of Courageous commitments

We had a rainy day up at the cabin and ended up watching the latest popular “Christian” movie Courageous. The movie came highly recommended by some of my friends. I have to admit I would have approached the whole experience with a critical eye. I like good movies. My wife and I like to get out of the house go for a nice supper and catch a good flick. We heavily rely on Rotten Tomatoes to filter out the brutal movies and rarely indulge in anything that isn’t “certified fresh.” We don’t always see things the same way as the critics in both directions. It has on more than one occasion led to us a fine evening of lesser known indie films at the Roxy Theatre.

You can tell Courageous has the same kind production values as the decent indie films which is kind of nice. One of the big action scenes was actually kind of engaging. The acting was uneven but at least it was acceptable in parts. The preachy dialog made me wince a few times.

In the movie several characters make a public resolution
to be better men, husbands and fathers.

My first thought is: isn’t the commitment to be Christ’s disciple enough? If it isn’t then why not? It reminds me of the commitments I would make in my younger days. Commitments and resolutions to quit certain bad habits, listening to the wrong kind of music and indulging in the wrong kind of entertainment. These commitments were usually made in spiritual afterglow of some kind of youth conference with a dynamic challenging speaker. After enduring a few years of this it became thoroughly tiresome. The commitment would last a few weeks, a few months, or maybe even a year. Then I would fail. I didn’t have the willpower left. Despite all my efforts to do it “in God’s strength” it was clear that it wasn’t happening. It seems as though “in God’s strength” meant doing all kinds of spiritual activities in my strength or order to “ability activate” God’s strength in order to attain a new level of victory! In the end it looked a lot like my strength all over again.

As I think about it even deeper I’m not sure the language of commitment is always helpful. It so easily falls in to the trap of willing oneself to a pattern of good conduct without actually becoming anything different. I can make a commitment to be like Christ without knowing Christ.

While Christian art is rarely subtle there are subtle undertones in the teaching of this movie. The unspoken message is this “you are not enough.” You are not enough of a man, you are not enough of a father, and you are not enough of a husband. Christ died to accept your punishment for not being enough, now you must now curry his favour and blessing by becoming enough.

Don’t think so? Watch this.

The text:

And we are inviting any man whose heart is willing and courageous to join us in this resolution.

In my home, the decision has already been made.  You don’t have to ask who will guide my family because by God’s grace, I will.  You don’t have to ask who will teach my son (and daughter) to follow Christ because I will.  Who will accept the responsibility of providing for and protecting my family? I will.  Who will ask God to break the chain of destructive patterns in my family’s history? I will. Who will pray for and bless my children to boldly pursue whatever God calls them to do? I am their father…I will.  I accept this responsibility, and it is my privilege to embrace it.

I want the favor of God and His blessing on my home.  Any good man does.  So where are you men of courage?  Where are you, fathers who fear the Lord?  It’s time to rise up and answer the call God has given you, and to say, I will! I will! I will!

Grace as described in the New Testament is charis and it means unmerited favour. In this movie grace is understood as something we invoke to enable us to live a holy life. This is where the great disconnect happens. God’s grace does transform us but it has always been unmerited and unearned. There is a vast chasm of difference between receiving God’s grace and trying to activate it. One involves human effort and striving. The other involves surrender, transparency and accepting oneself in their own brokenness. One leads to shame instead of wholeness, self-denial instead of true maturity, and ultimately fruitlessness instead of abundant life.

How does one tell the difference between striving and surrendering? Someone who is striving is trying to live up to a standard and needs God’s help to do it. Someone who has surrendered knows they will never live up to the standard and is actually strengthened by knowing they are loved anyway. The true essence of holiness is love. One doesn’t love until they know love. Knowing how much God loves you also changes how you view others. Everyone becomes worthy, everyone. The love of God lives inside you and now the “righteous requirement of the law” is fulfilled because you don’t need rules to guide your conduct, your love guides you.

The message of this movie is you should be ashamed for not being better. God will judge you therefore be courageous enough to make this commitment. Man Up and activate the favour and blessing of God in order to become better. It doesn’t work and it can’t work. It does nothing more than pile on more shame which makes you believe you are unworthy, unloved and distant from God. It undercuts the work of grace and leaving you fruitless. The message of Christ is that even while you were dead in your sins you were always worth something to God and never ever beyond his love. While God was once separate from you by the blood of Christ he has brought you near, he has always been with you and always will be with you because he decided you were worth being with. If you could just accept his love by faith, it would restore your relationship with him and you no longer have to be afraid.


Gun Control!

Gun control!  My few thoughts on what we should be thinking about in the aftermath of the shootings.  Knee jerk reactions blaming our favourite targets (lack of gun control, poor parenting, lack of mental health services etc…) are easy but we really should find out all the facts in this case.  The alleged shooter was using a semi-automatic rifle which apparently jammed forcing him to switch guns.  In Canada one can legally acquire semi-automatic rifles.  I don’t know that a similar shooter couldn’t have accomplished the same thing in Canada.  Did we forget about the shooting in Toronto just a little while ago?

The big question we should ask is why so many Americans shoot each other relative to the rest of the world?  In Canada we have lots of guns too, we just don’t use them on each other with anywhere near the same frequency.   Sometimes the appeal for new restrictive laws is just a distraction from the real problem.  I don’t honestly know why Americans shoot each other so much.

A friend of mine told me that even the American military doesn’t have their assault rifles set to full automatic.  (I haven’t confirmed this elsewhere).  The popular theory is that our friends to the south are so trigger happy they waste too much ammunition on full auto.  Is gun culture the issue rather than lack of gun control?

Like the vast majority of people on this planet I don’t believe the American constitution is a moral authority on firearms.  I know American’s get all choked up about it but most of it is a few hundred years old.  The original notion was that the people could resist oppression by their government.  Now I don’t know what good even an assault rifle would be against the American military.  In an even more absurd twist more American’s believe they have a right to have a gun than actually bother to vote.  The best way to resist a drift towards an oppressive government would be become an active and politically engaged electorate.  I think it is backwards to watch their government implement more and more restrictive controls and monitoring, some of which have been constitutionally suspect, while caring so much about owning guns.  That is unless people love guns for some other reason.  Which I think is the case.

Why do American’s love guns?  I think one explanation is that Americans are more polarized than other mature democracies.  They trust their government less and have less confidence in law enforcement.  They feel they need to defend themselves more than a Canadian, Brit or Australian.

In the wake the tragedy many gun advocates proclaimed that the situation in that theater would have resolved itself quicker if someone else had a gun.  A somewhat fanciful notion.  What if 4 other people had guns and they started shooting each other in the confusion?  Would law enforcement know who to shoot?

I don’t know the way forward, but I am worried about this.  The societal and political discourse in America continues to grow less rational and more polarized.  This could lead to more defensiveness, fear and gun conflict.