Civil War in the Church

April 10th, 2018

A civil war in the church is offensive to the gospel and a rejection of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet what do we see in many places? We see Christians who hate each other, who belittle and abuse one another, and who refuse to see any good thing in the person with whom they disagree.

What are the signs of civil war?

The signs of civil war in the church are the same as those that are apparent in wider American society. It is a civil war of the soul: by virtually every measure, Americans are more alienated from each other than ever before.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Richard North Patterson observed that on issues of race and ethnicity, immigration, feminism and gender, guns and education there is a massive divergence of opinion in the USA. The article is an opinion piece on politics in America. The authors of do not endorse or promote his opinion. Nevertheless, it does, in my view, provide a fair analysis of the divisions and behaviors that exist in present-day America and as such is worth sharing. A link is provided as it is proper to provide sources of data and so that readers can judge their reasonableness for themselves. Mr. Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of twenty-two novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He says “All these fault lines fuel political trench warfare, stifling compromise and preventing us from resolving our most pressing problems. But equally pernicious is how this mass failure of empathy and imagination poisons our attitudes toward each other …

No longer do partisans view their political opponents as simply wrong or misguided, but as enemies of all they hold dear. … ever more Republicans and Democrats deny each other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, deplore each other’s news sources, detest each other’s party and, indeed, despise and dehumanize who they imagine each other to be.

These opposing groups have become hostile forces living in gated communities of the mind, ripe for exploitation by an unprincipled (person).”

Signs of Civil War in the Church

  • Issues are presented as being of existential and/or eternal significance
  • Inability to accommodate the needs of others
  • Paralysis when resolving pressing problems
  • Failure of empathy and imagination
  • Impugning each other’s motives
  • Detesting each other’s groups
  • Stop listening to alternative points of view
  • Despising and dehumanizing who they imagine each other to be

The signs of a civil war in the church are everywhere! I am in shock at what I have read, seen and heard about the things that are going on in The United Methodist Church (USA). I know that it is often said that people shouldn’t talk about what is going on in other churches. But you see, every church is part of the one family. What The UMC (USA) does affects the attitude of people in all churches — including mine on the far side of the planet.

Every Christian has skin in the game when other Christians behave badly.

What is going on?

Sadly these signs are all too familiar in the life of churches. When I see the signs of civil war in the church I see the following.

  • People want to make issues much bigger and more important than God considers them to be. Decisions are invested with eternal significance when they are not the essentials of the faith. People are playing God.
  • Selfishness and ego mean that people are only concerned for themselves.
  • Christians who get paralysed in finding a way through have closed themselves off to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their community. Christ brings reconciliation to communities and does not divide them.
  • A failure of empathy is a failure to love; and a sign of self-absorption which manifests itself in no capacity to imagine what is going on for the person with another deeply held point of view.
  • Forgetting that we are family in Christ, that we need each other and that God is the judge of us all, means that we can justify not listening and disrespecting others.
  • Hate is never a Christian virtue! People have abandoned the Gospel and Christ is said to have died in vain when we treat anyone as unloveable and an enemy to be hated.
  • Despising and dehumanizing people is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Such an attitude denies the presence of the Holy Spirit in every Christian.

The reason that there can be a civil war in the church is that Christians are not being faithful to Jesus Christ.

Why does it matter if there is a civil war in the church?

Sadly, too many people seem to think that if their view can be imposed on others that the witness of the church will be more effective. If only, they think, we can get rid of people who are different to us then everything will be wonderful. Examples of this being true are few and far between. And the few, like the origins of the Methodist Church and Salvation Army, who can point to new connections and growth had two things in common: they were focused on a new mission and evangelism and not on doctrinal purity, and they were thrown out — they didn’t seek rupture.

Faithfulness comes from hearing from the whole theological, cultural, liturgical, and other diversity of the church. No one part of the church has it right. We all need the breadth of the church to inform us so that we can better understand God’s will. We need historical, cultural and ecumenical input. Churches that lose diversity easily lose faithfulness.

Understanding and knowing the will of Christ for his church is a work of the whole community of faith — albeit that authority may be invested in some specific people. Together we discern Christ’s will for an issue at this time and in this place. The capacity to follow Christ is crippled and usually lost when there is civil war.

What can be done?

Everyone needs to get down on their knees and confess to God their part in the brokenness of their church. Use the list under the heading “What is going on?” as a guide for prayer. Be genuinely open to the work of the Holy Spirit and believe that Jesus can save us. Christ is God’s peace; seek God’s peace for the church.

Listen to the views of others — the deep needs, fears and hopes that they express. Ask “What do I need to take from their perspective and apply in my life?"

"The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together" (Abingdon Press, 2017)

In high conflict situations, external mediators and facilitators are needed. Contact us to discuss how conflict intervention strategies and other resources can assist you to develop practical steps that break the cycles of mistrust and abuse.

Learn about consensus-based discernment. Its four steps build trust, openness, relationships and shared goals. Use The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together as an introduction.

It’s never too late to introduce people to better ways of being in community. When difficult issues are before us that is exactly the time to try something new! You have choices; take them and break the cycle of destruction and pain.

Jesus is grieving for his church. Its divisions are damaging his body and undermining his saving work. Draw close to Jesus and bless him by playing your part in ending the civil war in the church.

The post Civil War in the Church appeared first on Making Church Decisions. Reprinted with permission.

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