Too Often Broken from the Start

July 1st, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the three little pigs. The pigs had the same goal: survival against the wolf. But they viewed the threat differently. One assumed the wolf was all bark and no bite, so the pig built his home from straw. Another assumed the wolf definitely had bite but little skill, thus the pig used a stronger but imperfect material, wood. The final pig understood both the wolf’s intentions and skills and built his house of the strongest materials possible, brick. Most know the story’s ending. The huffing and puffing from the wolf claimed two of the pigs’ lives. But pig number three survived and even defeated the wolf. Give that little pig his due. He was courageous and resourceful. More importantly, he understood what happened before the wolf attacked.

Abraham Lincoln’s reference to Mark 3:25—a house divided against itself cannot stand—is well known (June 16, 1858, Springfield, IL). But what divided the house? Many focus on the twenty or thirty years before the Civil War began, examining factors such as the Great Compromise, Dred Scott, and the rise of the abolitionists. But history professor Barbara Fields observes, “If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States in independence from Great Britain with slavery still a part of its heritage.” The most tragic conflict in American history began hundreds of years before fatal shots were fired. The cause was a compromised foundation.

Conflict has always existed in congregations. God’s plan for the church is certainly flawless, but there’s no such thing as a flawless church. Divisions arise within a congregation for a number of reasons (see 1 Cor 1:10; 2 John 9-10). In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul wrote: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.” The cause of the problem between these women is unknown but serious enough for mediation.

Preaching to a divided congregation usually happens after confronting the issues at hand. Paul’s words from Philippians 4 come as the conflict is escalating. Like so many pastors, Paul rushes to shore up the breach before it grows worse.

But look at Paul’s primary exhortation in Philippians 4 to these women “who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.” Paul suggests that the core relationship can become their greatest tool for reconciliation, because it was established before the conflict began. Therefore the most important question when dealing with division, which should be asked long before any conflict has a chance to petrify, should be: “For us to ensure a chance for survival together, what must happen before any words are spoken or before conflict escalates?”

Here are a few suggestions for addressing internal conflict when preparing to preach:

1. Preach a Gospel of Unity

The church must focus on what unites the church—namely Christ’s love for us. We are all present in the body of Christ by the invitation of Jesus, not by any right or means of authority. We sit at the table of Christ by grace and forgiveness alone. We belong to the community because Jesus made it available to us. There is only one “head of that table” (Jesus), and every other seat is equal.

2. Grace as Equal Opportunity Agent

The grace of Jesus Christ leads us to our most humbling beginning point, not the other way around. Our common denominator is our need for Jesus.

If we are present at God’s table because of grace, then our neighbor, who we are to love as ourselves, sits at that table for the same reason. Grace doesn’t make any of us right or wrong. It makes us worthy, and it reminds us that wounds, brokenness, and the prejudices of life don’t hold sway over us. The trajectory of hope begins in our favor, but only if we are willing to first say no to ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Jesus (Matt 16:24).

3. The Power of Listening

Our first task beyond grace is listening, not speaking or doing. First we listen to Jesus without prejudice, not only as the speaker of a truthful message but as the Truth himself. Sometimes the body practices a form of personal, spiritual eisogesis—reading into a situation the principles or solutions that only support our points of view. The question “Jesus, what do you have to say to us?” should always trump “Let ME tell YOU what Jesus wants YOU to know.”

Second, we listen to all of what Jesus teaches. C. S. Lewis said in his book The Last Battle that life is like “Chapter One of the Great Story . . . which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Life in Christ is like a book unfolding page to page. Some parts of the story we like better and make us feel better than others. Parts of the story will inspire, anger, or disappoint us. But we learn to read every page and to the end.

The story of Jesus doesn’t consist of only the parts we appreciate or approve of. The Jesus who stood in the temple also preached on the mountainside. The same Jesus who proclaimed truth to the merchants wrote in the dirt in front of the prostitute and spoke openly with the woman at the well. The same Jesus who allowed a woman to anoint him for burial pushed away his own family due to the urgency of the day. The same Jesus born under an amazing bright light died a brutal death in darkness. And so the story goes on. We must tell the whole story.

But in listening to Jesus, we learn to listen to each other. The grace of the cross is an open invitation. As we said, no one is more or less than anyone else at the cross. And thus, in rejecting a supposed superior position over another, we always talk less and listen more.

A tech friend reminded me that every computer system arrives with its original settings. It’s the framework for how the device works and what it can accomplish. If there’s a problem, one can reboot the system to its original settings. This is not an easy process. It requires a willingness to sacrifice some things or to put other things on hold. And when rebooting, we put trust in the original design.

The source of much congregational conflict is in faulty system settings. Unfortunately, in this imperfect world, wolves appear regularly, houses crack from weak foundations, and program glitches become all-out system failures. To pretend the wolf doesn’t have bite, that an unstable house will weather the storm, or that systems won’t develop bugs is unrealistic.

My grandfather always said, “It’s best to start at the beginning.” When preaching in the context of conflict, it may be best to live and finish there as well. 

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