Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.(Romans 14:1, NRSV)
As students return to school, we are accustomed to gearing up church life for the program year. People who have been traveling return home. Study groups and classes begin again. This year we may be starting things in hybrid fashion, like the kids in my local school system, with some mélange of outdoor and online worship, or allowing only small groups to gather in person. Whatever our plans, there is a different kind of pressure to come back together than we may have felt over the summer, and a diminishing of the distractions that occupied people who may disagree with our decisions to return, or not, to more familiar ways of gathering.
No matter what pastors or church leaders have discerned, or how thoughtfully, it’s likely some in the community will disagree. For those who have worked hard on plans and protocols, the complaints can sting, particularly when they take the form of a veiled threat to stop giving, or a detailed report on how other churches are doing it differently, or a blistering all-caps email.
How can we be the church when we disagree?
If we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a warning about “quarreling over opinions.” Whatever you do or eat or observe, he says, do it in honor of and with thanksgiving to God. Among the quarrelsome Romans, some judged their siblings in Christ, and some even despised them. In this contentious season, particularly for those of us in the U.S., where it’s almost too easy to draw a connection between church policies and presumed political stances, we may relate. It’s not just pastors on the receiving end of complaints, and it’s only human to feel disappointed, misunderstood, even betrayed by the mistrust of people we thought we knew well.
It’s important to remember that we are not the first or the only communities of faith to struggle with differences in belief and understanding. We cannot control the opinions of church members and friends, but we can control how we treat them. Paul reminds us that we are all going to be accountable to God. How do we want to be judged in the end?
When we turn to the gospel, Jesus offers a vivid caution in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. He offers a parable about debt and a “king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) The familiar and uncomfortable story shows the figure with great power behaving with generosity while the figure with little power seizes as much as he can hold onto, causing harm to one of his fellows. The forgiven person cannot see the irony of his action, or does not care. He is looking out only for his own good.
When children are baptized at my wife’s church, she asks the other children if they will show love to the newly baptized, putting it in terms they understand. “Will you show them where to find the snack table? If you see them fall down in the hallway, will you help them get up again?” These basic principles of care for one another ought to be unforgettable to all of us. We don’t knock each other down to get to the snack table first!
How can we be the church when we disagree – particularly in this current situation?
I believe we start by trying to see one another’s point of view, then by taking the time to explain why we hold ours. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to dehumanize the person who disagrees with us, to devalue their perspective, or denigrate their intelligence. We have examples of such behavior non-stop on social media, sometimes from people we know well. (Maybe even from ourselves.) We’re called to do better, to show some regard for the humanity of the person who disagrees with us.
We’re called to remember God’s mercy to us and extend that mercy to others.
For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.