So last week in my sermon I said some big, warm, fuzzy things about church, and the grace of being part of a faith community. But let’s get real. Churches are called by God, but made of people, and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we piss each other off. Sometimes we disagree, about important things or dumb things.
Our Sunday lectionary seems eager to call our attention to all this. In both the Gospel and the Epistle, we’re smack in the middle of passages addressing conflict within faith communities. In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching the disciples how to deal with offenses within the church community, while the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about how to handle differences of conviction among Christians.
As I read both of these passages, I found myself thinking of our church Community Covenant. About a year ago, the Vestry, our church board, began work on a document stating how we want to be with each other, when we disagree. The Vestry voted to adopt that Covenant, and then offered it to the whole church, to guide our life together. It includes guidelines like: Keep in mind the bigger picture and what we are trying to accomplish together. Remember that our differences of perspective are a blessing and an opportunity to learn. Stay faithful to practices that build our sense of community.
Both Matthew and Paul are undertaking similar work, offering some guiding principles and practices for situations of disagreement, misunderstanding, or hurt. Peter’s question about forgiveness, in this week’s Gospel passage, flows directly out of the preceding verses, last week’s reading, in which Matthew’s Jesus talks about church conflict. I’m saying “Matthew’s Jesus” very intentionally here. The bit about forgiving someone seven times, or even seventy times seven – that’s probably really Jesus; it sounds like him, and it shows up in several ancient texts.
But Matthew expands it into a recommended process for addressing grievances within the church community – here it is, we heard it in last week’s Gospel: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
All of that is only in Matthew’s Gospel – which not always, but sometimes, is a clue that what we have here is the Gospel writer expanding and interpreting what they’ve received. And I can well understand how Matthew might be tempted to expand Jesus’ teachings in this way. He’s writing maybe fifty years after Jesus’ death, which means Christians have had fifty years to discover the ways that being church together can get difficult or awkward. He might well feel that he wishes Jesus had offered a little more concrete guidance.
And so Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness becomes this process: Matthew says, First raise the issue in private, then bring two witnesses to back you up; then if the offender still doesn’t apologize, tell the whole church what they did – and treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, which given that Jesus ministered to both Gentiles and tax collectors, means – I think, I hope – that you just start the relationship fresh. Start over.
It sounds really sensible and practical. Like the kind of thing you might add to a community covenant. Until you think about it. To begin with, Matthew frames this as a process for what to do if another member of the church sins against you. Now, if I try, I can think of a few times in my nearly seven years at St. Dunstan’s’s when I could say somebody sinned against me – did or said something unfair or unkind towards me. But the VAST majority of the times when something bubbles up that needs handling, among us, that’s NOT what’s going on. People have different visions or priorities; or there’s a misunderstanding, or people just irritate each other. Whatever’s going on, it is not helpfully addressed by the question,
“Who sinned?” So for one thing, Matthew’s process here is limited in application.
For another thing, Matthew’s process is very open to abuse. I think something’s always made me a little uneasy about this – Biblical commentator Richard Swanson puts his finger right on it. Consider the move to involve witnesses. Swanson asks, Humans being humans, who are going to ask to come with you, to confront someone you’re upset with? He writes, “When we have been hurt, we generally talk to close friends who will commiserate with us, and then we talk to not-so-close friends who will agree with us.” So our witnesses are likely to be people who are in our corner.
And even if the witnesses are impartial, they may read the power dynamics of the situation, and choose sides on that basis, rather than on the basis of truth. Swanson writes, “Dominators of every sort exert their power (and do their damage) by creating a system in which subordinates believe that it is to their advantage to take the side of [the] abuser.”
Think about Matthew’s process again; think about how easily it could become a tool of power, a process to silence someone raising a legitimate concern. Person A raises a concern about Person B: He has done something that upset her or caused her harm. Person B sees this complaint as a sin against him. He didn’t mean anything by it. She’s too sensitive. It was just a joke. And anyway, it didn’t happen; she’s lying.He follows Matthew’s first step: He goes to her alone, and says, You know, you should drop this. She refuses. She knows what happened, and she’s going to speak. So Person B comes back with a couple of friends. Step two. They meet with her together, and tell her, If you don’t let this go, We’re just going to have to tell everyone all about you. All… about… you. Your family background. Your relationships. Your history of mental illness or addiction. That’s the next step: Go public. Tell everybody all about it.
By the time Step 3 is over, Person A is gone. Driven out of the community. Her life torn apart. The sin of naming Person B’s misbehavior has been duly punished. Swanson says, “When peace is broken, even the protocol that is set for making peace can be a tool used by oppressors.”
I don’t blame Matthew for outlining a process so ripe for abuse. He was naive. I envy him his blissful ignorance. And his process could certainly be helpful, in the best of circumstances, assuming good motives and a level field of play. At base, I think he just wants people to address issues directly, instead of gossiping about them. And quite right. But he just doesn’t seem to realize that disagreements and grievances within a community are rarely as simple as, A sinned against B. Most of the time, it’s just that we see things differently.
Which brings us to Romans 14, and to the apostle Paul. Paul has been traveling around visiting churches, founding churches, encouraging churches, dealing with difficulties and disputes in churches, for a while, by the time he writes his great letter to the church in Rome. He’s seen some stuff. He knows that churches can get messy. He knows that, as Swanson puts it, “People disagree and people hurt each other, even when all the people involved are good-hearted and aiming to do right.”
I actually really love Romans 14. I wrote a paper on it in seminary – I think it caught my attention at first because I’m a vegetarian. “The weak [of conscience] eat only vegetables” – ouch! But spending time with this passage – with the whole chapter – gave me a lot of respect for the ethic of community that Paul is trying to develop here.
Paul is addressing a reality of the first century church: there was a lot of diversity of conviction and practice. Christianity was still firmly rooted in Judaism at that time, and the church was still working out where Jewish ritual practices – holy days, food laws, and much more – fit into this new way of faith. At the same time, many new Christians had converted from other religions or no religion. And people reached different conclusions about what it looked like to be an observant Christian. There were people who kept holy days and food restrictions, and there were people who thought all that was nonsense, because we have this wonderful freedom in Christ, in which none of that prescribed piety matters anymore. And those two parties could be prone to clashing and looking down on each other. The observant think the non-observant are lazy spiritual slackers. The non-observant think the observant are superficial and faithless.
Eating meat wasn’t by any means the only issue, but it seems to of been a recurring issue. Meat might come from animals were sacrificed to other gods, and/or the animal might not have been killed in accordance with the practices of kosher. So either way, for those keeping Jewish food rules, the meat would be tainted. People who were trying to follow those food-related piety practices, in a multi-religious urban setting, might simply choose to be vegetarian and avoid the issue.
Paul addresses these kinds of divisions within faith communities by naming two parties: the Strong and Weak of conscience. The Strong of conscience are the non-observant: those who are convinced that the holy days and kosher laws and all that were part of an old order that has come to an end. The Weak in conscience are those who feel, deep inside themselves, that these practices and habits are still part of the texture of their life of faith, still part of the way they honor God in daily life.
Paul identifies with the Strong. He believes, with them, that Christians are not bound to any particular set of ritual practices – certainly not those associated with Judaism. And in this text, Paul is addressing the Strong. What he says to them is, essentially: You’re right. But: Don’t be jerks about it.
Because being right isn’t enough. Being right can break community. Paul takes seriously both the unity of the body of Christ, and the consciences and convictions of the Weak. He understands, maybe because he was once an observant Jew, that when people have deep-seated habits of faith, you can’t just tell them that stuff doesn’t matter anymore, and expect them to get over it instantly. Those practices are deeply imprinted in their souls. For example, pressuring them to eat meat, or even just eating meat in front of them, could injure their faith – because it feels wrong; it feels to them like an affront to God, even if they’re trying to think about it differently. Food choices might seem unimportant to the Strong, but they’re very important to the Weak, and the Strong need to hear that, and take it seriously. In the verses following today’s lesson, Paul explains this: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. But it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. Do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit… Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat.”
And at the beginning of today’s text, Paul even says to the Strong, Don’t argue with the Weak about all this. Even if you change their minds, you can’t change their hearts. Don’t be a stumbling block for their faith. Instead, create breadth within the faith community for a variety of practices, because people experience and live out their faith in many ways. And don’t judge each other: Those who eat meat must not look down on those who don’t, and vice versa, for God has welcomed ALL of you.
Now if I thought that Paul was advocating that we should let people cling to an overly rigid sense of rulebound faith indefinitely, then I might find this more troubling. But I don’t believe that. I’m reading out from Paul a little here but I think I’m solid ground: Paul sees this as a temporary and evolving state of affairs. His endgame is to hold the community together, across their differences, so that over time they learn from each other and shape each other.
After I graduated from seminary, I spent a couple of years in New Hampshire, serving as the assistant to the rector in a church there. This was 2008 – 2010, but even then, five-plus years after the fact, people there were still processing their experiences of electing Gene Robinson as their bishop, and the worldwide response to that election. Back in 2003, the tiny Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire was suddenly thrust into the worldwide limelight, because their newly-elected bishop was an openly gay man, who had a partner.
People from New Hampshire are not attention seekers; they did not set out to make a splash, to make history or to make their new bishop a target. New Hampshire is a small diocese; everybody knows Gene, and lots of people had been part of the bishop search and election. What people told me, again and again, is, We elected Gene because we knew Gene. We knew his family. He’d been serving in the diocese for years. The unfolding understanding of whom God calls to ordained ministry, in the Diocese of New Hampshire, didn’t happen because of cogent theological or biblical argumentation on the part of the Strong of Conscience. It happened through people being church together, and recognizing the witness of a good life, and bearing with the discomfort of coming to a new understanding together.
I think that’s exactly what Paul was counting on, with the Strong/Weak division back in his day. Paul believed the Strong would, eventually, win – not because of arguments or pressuring the Weak, but by staying in community and showing, by their words and actions, that they’re faithful servants of God even though they eat meat of dubious origin. Paul believed that time was on the side of the Strong, and he was right.
Matthew wants there to be situations in which there’s a right, and a wrong, and a resolution. His prescription for those situations, built on Jesus’ call to forgiveness, is fine. But those situations aren’t actually that common. Paul offers a much more generalizable and durable approach to the many times when people within a community just aren’t all on the same page about something. That’s ultimately why I’m so drawn to this chapter of Romans: because even though meat-eating and holy days may not be the issues, life in the Church is full of situations when something matters to me, but not to you, or vice versa.
And having Paul talk about this, so clearly and so kindly, feels like having a wise elder church leader, who’s walked closely with God and who’s lived through so many church conflicts, tell me what what happens in my church, in all our churches, is normal – and even holy.
Sometimes there will be a group that feels very clear about what God wants and where we should be going, and they’ll feel impatient that everybody else hasn’t caught the vision yet. I’ve been in that group. Sometimes there will be a group that feels very clear about the integrity and beauty of what we have already, and the risks and costs of change, and they’ll feel anxious and stretched by new possibilities. I have been in that group too. Sometimes I feel like I’m in both at once. Paul says, here, Yeah. That’s just how churches are. Don’t expect unanimity or uniformity. The diversity among you leaves space for the Spirit to play. Get comfortable with the discomfort of being impatient, or stretched, or both at once. And work on loving each other, and trusting God, enough to follow that discomfort where it leads you, together.