There is no way of saying it kindly. Church splits are the pits! That is, when a church family faces times of dissension and division, the overwhelming result is rarely anything other than pain, sorrow and frustration. It is a sad reality but seldom can one find a fight that is more low-down and nasty than a family fight and when the family happens to be a congregational family, the only “winner” is the Enemy of all that is good and all that is of God.
It is a tragedy when we who are called by the great Lover of our souls to reflect our love for Him by the quality of our love, care, respect and mercy towards one another, manage instead to exhibit the ugliest extremes of malicious gossip, merciless judgment fear-mongering and blatant character-assassination. In a church fight, the first act of forgetfulness seems to be that today’s so-called enemies were those who yesterday we called sisters and brothers in Christ. The second act of forgetfulness is that in our desperate, no-holds-barred effort to push our holy agenda and out-yell our opponents, we are likely to end up committing more damage to the Kingdom of God by our anger and self-righteousness, by our uncivil speaking, callous behaviors and arrogant, hate-filled attitudes. When, for instance, I see parades of Christians with their angry placards declaring that “God hates fags!” I cannot help but wonder how such behavior brings glory to Jesus who not only kept company with sinners, but suffered and died for them as much as for me.
No, church splits are the pits, and yet, it is amazing to me that despite our human capacity to pure orneriness and stupid divisiveness, the Lord’s kindness and healing ends up being poured out in such unexpected and lavish ways when we so do not deserve it and yet so desperately need that goodness. Perhaps that is a testimony once again of how gracious our God is.
At our presbytery meeting today (the presbytery is the higher “court” to which Presbyterian ministers and congregations are accountable—it is a bishop in the form of a committee), I was struck by the fact that other congregations here on Vancouver Island have recently gone through times of conflict and division. Despite the conflict, hurt and loss, however, God’s faithfulness to his people remained steadfast, and a deeper mercy flowed with redeeming power into the experience of the people and leadership of those churches. While the story of conflict in each church was unique, there were some commonalities in terms of how the Holy Spirit ministered in the midst of brokenness.
While some people left either in anger or because they simply did not want to hang around in the midst of an unhappy fellowship, those who stayed found themselves drawing closer to one another and closer to Christ. In the storm of conflict, people found themselves increasingly on their knees, not only praying for discernment for God’s truth or for calming of tensions, but above all, just for the Lord himself to draw near with help and healing. In the aftermath of division and brokenness, folks were drawn deep into the scriptures for guidance and encouragement, for forgiveness and renewal. Especially, they thirsted for the grace to become forgiving rather merely bitter. They prayed to be filled with a readiness to reconcile rather than to become indifferent and cold. In the season of grieving and recovery that inevitably follows the season of turmoil and pain, the story was of God’s people finding themselves more and more desiring that their church would be marked by a more profound humility, a generous kindness and the transforming loveliness of Jesus.
Whether as churches or individuals, we only begin to know once again days of hope and peace when we let God take care of the question of who was right and who was wrong (for the truth is that we will have all sinned and fallen short of his glory); when we stop asking God to “fix them” and start asking Him to fix us; when we find ourselves praying less that God would justify us in our positions and praying more that He would correct, forgive us and teach us; when we shift our attention from rehearsing the painful experience of the past and start praying for strength and wisdom to grasp the opportunities for kingdom ministry that still stand right in front of us. Days of hope and peace arrive when we simply choose to get on once again with our call to love and serve Jesus as best we know how.