As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
My pastor-friend and his congregation have separated. The pastor has not spun off into some kind of egregious sexual misconduct, or embezzled money, and has not or ever would mistreat church members through power or manipulation. None of that. This separation from his congregation happened, first, because of masks, and second, because his wife, politically speaking, is an outspoken Independent.
The pastor was concerned for the safety of his wife, who has vulnerabilities to the virus, so he was offering to preach remotely through live-streaming or to preach in person if all CDC guidelines were followed, including masks requirements. The leadership did not want to require mask-wearing during in-person worship, so the pastor and leadership came to an impasse.
In the process, some members started using social media to convey their disappointment concerning this impasse. The whole thing was circling the drain, so, after eight years of faithful, respectable, diligent and successful ministry in this congregation, and after 20 years of ordained service in the CRC, he and that congregation separated.
My friend did with class and dignity. He kept it, as sacrifice to himself, amicable. Even privately with me, he was gracious about it. But from the outside looking in, it seems to me that the process toward him, even from the Classis level, was unreasonable, punitive, and unkind.
Other abysmal stories abound. Another pastor-friend speculates that his church will lose between one-third to one-half of his congregation because of mask-wearing and safety guidelines. Additionally, some of my church members tell me of the brutal words expressed to them by their fellow church members on Facebook, or of the belligerent behavior exhibited by church people at the grocery store, or the swearing and cussing launched by religious people at restaurants, and the vitriol launched by some churchgoing folk against their school and its leaders when educational plans for the fall are published.
Not to mention the meanness and bullylike attitudes leaking out of the Church’s every orifice regarding politics. Again: unkindness.
Kindness in Disagreement
I think a lot lately about the story I heard of what Rob Bell said 20 years ago, in Grandville, Mich. Back then, as I was told, Bell’s church was white-hot; people were driving from three hours away to see the service. The roads around the church were jammed with cars, and the parking lot was melted in gridlock. Out there on the hot pavement, apparently people started having fights. So one Sunday, Bell stood and said something like, “Look, if the practice of your faith can’t make it out of the parking lot…” In essence he was saying, “You want to come and see the show and hear the band and listen to the great sermon, but if the mind and practice of Christ within you and through you can’t survive the pressure of traffic as you’re leaving church, then you have a very serious problem.”
This rings true today, in regard to our current problems with Christian conflict. I’m thinking of the church: This is all you got? This is the best The Church can do? How are we as Christians handling our convictions and disagreements? The answer: Not well at all.
“Whatever happens,” Paul said, “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27).” In large and tragic measure, we are not handling disagreements well because when you don’t have kindness, you have left the periodic table of elements of the Kingdom of God.
What Would Jesus Do?
Yet another pastor-friend of mine posted something about Jesus and how he would handle all of this. A really frothed-up churchgoer, at the end of what must have been a really short tether, responded, “I am sick and tired of everybody telling me what Jesus would do.” Precisely the point. Remember the bracelets? Isn’t that really our discussion, at all times, whether we agree or disagree? For Christ-followers, everything is always about that most magnificent of questions: What are we supposed to be, in attitude, word, and action for the sake of our Lord and King?
A few suggestions:
1. Peace in our hearts, rather than anger
Jesus said that anger and hate-driven words put us liable to the fire of hell (Matt. 5:21-22). Christ would have us die to our own pride and to consider others as better than ourselves. The peace of Christ must rule us. If it doesn’t, we must fall before him in repentance that he might heal us.
2. Suffering to the glory of God
Paul was in jail and in hardship in Philippi. Yet he said, “What has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel (Phil. 1:12).” In terms of our church lives, COVID, for most of us, has made things mildly inconvenient. These inconveniences are pathetically small in comparison to the actual, tragic suffering of some people who contract it, and of those whose loved ones have died from it. Our minor church-related inconveniences also become tragi-comically puny in comparison with the sufferings of other Christians in the world and throughout history. Yet many churchgoers seem incapable of true empathy for all the suffering around us and embarrassingly self-absorbed and enraged by the mildest of restrictions placed upon us.
I remember going on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. On Sunday, we drove through cane fields, and there on a cratered gravel road, we found the roofless, cinder-block church. We showed up in an air-conditioned bus; local people had walked for an hour or more in scorching heat to reach the place. The sound system was powered by a generator, which that morning wouldn’t start. So while four sweaty guys kept pulling on starter-rope for the engine, the praise singers kept singing anyway. We worshiped for two hours, sitting on warped two-by-six boards. That’s how they do it, every Sunday.
That church stuff was difficult. Wearing a mask to church, or bearing with the political feelings of other Christians with whom you differ … those things should not really be that difficult at all. If we were thinking with the mind of Christ, as did the Apostle Paul in his sufferings, we would have to be hoping, yearning, and praying that our conduct in the midst of what is happening to us in the COVID era, and in the era of this political mud-pit, is serving to advance the witness of the Suffering-Servant-King Christ among us.
Right now, that witness is shamefully lacking. “It has been granted to you,” said Paul, “not only to believe in Jesus but also to suffer for him.” It would be good for us to be on our faces before God about this that he might transform us in heart and mind, in word and in deed—that he would make us people of unfailing peace.
3. Patience, respect, and prayer for pastors
As a pastor myself, I can testify that preachers are unusual creatures and can sometimes be difficult to deal with. We are sinful and fallen servants and should be disciplined and corrected when we sin. Yet we are called by God to be under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd. As the church, we train them and ordain them to preach and call them to speak, to lead, and to give pastoral care. We trust that when they speak, it is God, by his Spirit, speaking to them and through them.
These days, tossed as we are by every wind of teaching and by merely human deceptions, pastors who speak, preach, and act prophetically will get into trouble in a hurry. I suggest that church people should carefully and thoughtfully listen, even if they disagree, and that when a pastor speaks, it should be weighed not on the scale of Facebook opinion, or against the opinions of a governor or a president, but on the strong foundation of spiritual trust and honor in Christ.
This is the church, the pillar and foundation of the truth. When it comes to pastors, church people should humbly think and act accordingly, lest we do careless, harmful, and sinful things to them.
This would be conduct more becoming the body of Christ.