How to Survive Church Fights (15th Pentecost, Proper 19A)
A Note from Fr. Guillermo about Hurricane Irma:
We extend a warm welcome back to all who evacuated and returned to Savannah after Hurricane Irma. While many of us found our homes undamaged, others were not so lucky. If you are in need of physical and/or financial assistance in storm recovery, please contact me at FrGAA@StMattSav.org. If you are able to provide financial support to others in their time, please donate to Episcopal Relief & Development or to my Priest’s Discretionary Fund (for direct assistance to Savannah’s poor and needy; please write checks to “St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church” with “Discretionary Fund” in the memo line). May God's peace be with you now and always.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
“How to Survive Church Fights”
by Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
XV Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19A)
Churches have always been hotbeds for conflict. We love God and we have very strong feelings and convictions about God. For many of us, church is also a place for us to let loose and be ourselves. It is a refuge from the storms of the world, where we can express our joy and sorrow within a community of support and love.
But when we get close to each other and become vulnerable with each other, it’s normal for our bad sides to show. Each of us sins in a multitude of ways, and we usually sin against the people who are closest to us. Church can be a place where our sins clash with someone else’s and then sin abounds. When she hurts me then I hurt her, and the nastiness can very quickly escalate. That’s fallen human nature at work. And unfortunately, even though we are blessed to know ourselves as sinners, Jesus hasn’t yet made it so that we don’t sin anymore.
We can’t simply will ourselves to be sin-free. We can’t just work harder at everything and become perfect. We can’t avoid all conflict with people. In this life, conflict is normal. It’s regular. It’s the byproduct of our inability to read each other’s minds all the time, and it’s a byproduct of our intentional and unintentional sins. So instead of telling us to simply stop sinning, St. Paul and Jesus give us much more practical instruction for handling church conflict.
Do not judge others
Part 1: Do Not Judge Others
The Roman Church seemed to disagree about many things. Paul wrote to them with some responses to their church fights. He heard that they disagreed about fasting and festivals. Some wanted to eat meat and others refused. Some wanted to acknowledge secular and Christian holidays while others wanted to live every day as piously as possible.
Soon these simple disagreements escalated into entrenched fights. There were two opposing sides. Pro-fasting and anti-fasting. The Pious Party and the Freedom Caucus.
These factions began to view each other as enemies. Each saw their cause as the cause for good and the other cause as dangerous, destructive, and evil. “We’re the good guys,” said both parties, “and we need to win at all costs!”
So the fight gets worse, and the parties begin to sabotage each other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. People begin to enter “fight or flight” mode. They either choose a side in the brewing war, or they leave the community altogether. The Eucharist, which once was a symbol of joy, peace, and unity, becomes a battleground. People start refusing to take Communion with someone from the other side. The priest can get drawn into one side or another, or worse, be used as a pawn by both factions to hurt the other.
This sort of conflict has advanced to the stage where it isn't normal and isn't okay. People are getting hurt left and right because the church has forgotten its true purpose. It has allowed these important but tangential issues to become centerpieces. They let small debates engulf the whole community and destroy its unity.
Now, instead of modeling the one Body of Christ, the church looks like every other human institution, racked with infighting and backbiting and every other kind of nastiness.
So Paul reminds us that we are not the Ultimate Judges. Only God is. God can handle our disagreements about fasting, holidays, women in leadership, carpet color, or money. God is over all and in all, and God will be judge of all.
“God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of [God]?” (Romans 14:3b-4a). And again, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (Romans 14:10)
That means that it is not our place to judge each other over smaller matters. Of course, we need God's wisdom and grace to know what is big and what is small. But that's why the Holy Spirit remains among us. The Spirit always points us back to unity with God and one another. She widens the circle of grace within and without the church.
This has been a hallmark of Anglicanism for centuries. We were founded on the idea of unifying those with Catholic and Protestant tendencies. We found the essential things about Church, agreed to stick with those, and let the rest be handled with love. This Spirit of Unity has persisted through all sorts of church fights, including high church vs. low church, Old vs. New Prayer Book, all male clergy vs. women clergy too, and the debates over LGBTQ inclusion in our own times. But Anglicanism has managed to hold together through it all. As best as we're able, we don't let our fights get in the way of our bonds of Christian affection. As the famous maxim goes, In necessary things unity, in uncertain things liberty, and in all things charity” (Abp. Marco Antonio de Dominis, often misattributed to St. Augustine).
Part 2: Forgive Seventy-Seven Times
But how can the Church survive generation after generation of fights? How can we continue on when we keep succumbing to our worst instincts? What allows us to maintain these bonds of love and unity when we inevitably fail to treat each other well?
Jesus’ answer is Forgiveness. Forgive your sister or brother seventy times seven times. Never give up on grace. Never stop looking for ways to forgive and heal and reconcile our broken relationships.
Forgiveness shows us the fruit of God’s Kingdom. It is how we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control in the Church. Forgiveness is the lubricant that helps the Church’s engine run smoothly. Without forgiveness, our table fellowship is broken. We cannot lead a common life around the Table of the Eucharist or the tables of the social hall without the ability and willingness to forgive each other.
This is certainly hard, but absolutely essential. Forgiveness is the bedrock of the Church because it is central to God’s character. Remember, Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
God is willing to forgive us even when it's difficult and the Church must also be a community of forgiveness. We must look for the best in others even when it's hard. We must try to offer grace in all the ways we can.
Forgiveness doesn't mean that everything is hunky dory. It doesn't even mean that everything goes back to the way it was. But God’s mercy transforms us in and through forgiven and changed relationships.
So when we fight with each other, as we surely will, we must not despair. We will remember to avoid judgment in as many things as possible. And we will remember to forgive. And by God’s grace living in us, we will overcome all the troubles of this world together as One Body of Christ. Amen.
Shivley, Elizabeth. "Commentary on Romans 14:1-12." Working Preacher. Accessed 13 September 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3426.
Wikipedia contributors. "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_necessariis_unitas,_in_dubiis_libertas,_in_omnibus_caritas