Peace in Our World?

For the last two weeks the images coming out of Afghanistan have been awful. Whatever your political persuasion, the sight of a mother handing her child to US soldiers over a wall for the sake of that child’s safety is heartbreaking. The death of 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghans as the result of a suicide bomber was devastating. Any peace that may have existed in that country on account of the presence of the US and its allies has evaporated. The people of Afghanistan and those who have yet been unable to get out safely need to be in our prayers.

Peace is precious but elusive in our world. Nations can be torn from within and without. This is one of the reasons we pray, as Jesus taught us, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Or as it says in Revelation 22:20: Come, Lord Jesus. Because to whatever extent God’s kingdom and will are becoming a present reality, ultimately they point us to the day Christ will return “to judge the living and the dead.” Only when Jesus comes again will the kingdom of God arrive in its glorious, peace-filled fullness. Only Jesus the Prince of Peace can secure lasting peace.

Living in the meantime always means living in the tension between “the now and the not yet.” We live in between the times, between the first and second coming of our Lord Jesus. While we look forward with hope to a future that will be conflict and violence free, human history will continue to be riddled with gunfire and soaked in blood. There is a Cain for every Abel. No amount of diplomacy, uneasy ceasefires, and political maneuvering will change this.

We need God himself to usher in his peace.

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, each Mass included the passing of the peace. We would turn to those around us and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The other person would respond by saying “And also with you.” In most Protestant churches we have turned this into a time of shaking hands and greeting one another. But they are not the same thing. To pass the peace is to declare and share the source of genuine peace. Peace comes from outside of us. The passing of the peace is a prayer and a perspective.

In the Bible, Jerusalem is the city of God. It is both historical and symbolic. Psalm 122:6–9 says this: Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure; may there be peace within your walls, security within your fortresses.” Because of my brothers and friends, I will say, “May peace be in you.” Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will pursue your prosperity.

One of the interesting shifts we see from the Old Testament to the New Testament is that all of the language of sacred buildings–say, the Temple or house of the Lord–gets transposed and refers to the actual people of God. For example, in 1 Peter 2:5, the community of faith is being built into a spiritual house. So perhaps we can think of Psalm 122:6–9 in a similar way. If so, then the prayer of the psalmist is that God’s people would be filled to overflowing with peace. Those who gather together as the church are to become outposts of peace in a conflict-filled world. When in the midst of a fellowship of believers, those whose lives have been rent asunder by violence and hate ought to find security. May peace be in you.

On the eve before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful. The peace Jesus gives to us now isn’t the empty promise or futile effort of a cynical politician. Nor does it involve the present elimination of all strife, whether between individuals or nations. Instead, it is the peace we can have in knowing that one day his kingdom will come and that the hostility of our world will come to an end. It is the peace the prophet Isaiah spoke about so beautifully. Speaking of the nations, the prophet says:

They will beat their swords into plows
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.

Isaiah 2:4

Such a vision almost seems impossible to believe or too good to be true. And were we to count on ourselves to bring about such a reality, we’d be right to think of such a state of affairs as beyond our grasp. Thankfully, however, not only is God able to accomplish this, he will indeed do so. That is his promise. That is the trajectory of biblical revelation. In the meantime, we can have peace now by trusting in the one who will eventually–in his timing and power–usher in the fullness of peace we so desperately want our world to know.

Conflict, Forgiveness, and Speaking the Truth in Love

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right.

And sometimes I want others to know that I think I am right.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right.

Because when it comes to a disagreement or conflict, there’s more at stake than whether one is wrong or right. There is also the relationship between the people who disagree. There is the effect their disagreement has on others. Conflict between two parties can often have a powerful gravitational pull that draws others into its orbit.

That, and conflicts consist of a great deal more than reasons and arguments and opinions. Being the whole creatures that we are, emotions play a huge role in disagreements too. While someone once said, and I think it’s true, that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” the opposite is also true in personal conflict. Feelings also don’t care about your facts. It’s not always what we say but how we say it. And even whether we choose to say it now or later or at all. Maybe some things don’t need to be said.

But even when something has to be said, we need to take much more into consideration than our reasons for believing we’re right and the other person is wrong. How will our words land when we say them? Are we saying them just to prove a point? And if we’re all worked up over the issue, are we speaking simply to vent and express our emotions?

Ephesians 4:15 tells us that followers of Jesus ought to be people who practice speaking the truth in love. Practice, indeed. Because I can do neither of these things perfectly. I don’t have exclusive rights to the truth. Others have their perspective on the issue causing conflict. Nor am I capable of speaking anything true in a 100% loving way. Pride and self-centredness infiltrate every word I try to speak in love.

Paul’s words, though, at the very least make one thing clear. Always avoiding conflict to preserve relationships and to keep the peace isn’t the answer either. I grew up with that idea, however. I know what it’s like to be in an environment where people swept hard feelings under the living room rug. It could make for an uncomfortable situation where I was made to feel like I was in the wrong simply for disagreeing or being critical. I learned to avoid conflict, to push emotions away, and even as an adult I can find it very hard to have difficult conversations. Confrontations are not my favourite thing. On the flight or fight spectrum, I am on the far end of the flight side. That’s not always a good thing.

Yet I also understand. I get why people don’t want to face conflict. Words can wound. Even when that’s not our intention. We don’t always mean to say hurtful things. Funny that as kids we were taught to say “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, let’s call that what it is: a lie.

Even Scripture knows this is a lie. In James 3:5–6 it says How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Later in verses 9–10 it says this of the tongue: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. James is speaking to Christians here, not non-Christians. Believers do this sometimes.

Conflicts and disagreements are not centrally about issues but about people. And people–you and me–are messy. Sometimes we want our way. Sometimes we argue out of spite or out of a sense of self-righteousness. We want to be right, believe ourselves to be right, and we want the other person to accept that we’re right. And sometimes when someone speaks hard words to us–even if we know those words are true–we don’t want to admit it. We dig in our heels. Our defenses go up. Maybe we say things we regret. In the worst of conflicts, bridges are burned and relationships rent asunder. When this happens, who cares if we’re right? Not if we end up hurting and being hurt. Not if homes end up broken and churches end up split. No one wins when this happens.

What answers do I have? Can I pass on 3 easy steps to prevent disagreements and confrontations? You know, to make sure we never get ourselves into such a mess?

Unfortunately, no. I think we will often get these things at least a little wrong. Indeed, sometimes we handle them very poorly.

And when this happens, as it inevitably will, what will we do? Paul, in Colossians 3:13 says that disciples of Jesus ought to make a habit of forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. True, we could spend hours talking about forgiveness, what it means, and how to practice it in the church and in our lives.

But in the context of conflict, I think it can mean that even if we’re right, we might have to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for how we handled a conversation. Forgiveness for the way we tried to get our point across. Forgiveness for ignoring how someone else feels.

We all need to give and receive forgiveness for how we use our words and for how we misunderstand the words of others.

If we’re Christians, we don’t really have a choice. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven–not just by other sinful people, but by God himself. To live into the forgiveness we have received through our Lord, we need to become forgiving people.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12), Jesus teaches us to pray these words:

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Is Jesus making our forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others? Perhaps see it this way. If we refuse to forgive, do we really understand what it means that Jesus forgives us of our sins? If we have received forgiveness from Jesus, won’t we become the sort of people who are willing to extend forgiveness to others who hurt us? Didn’t we hurt Jesus with our sin profoundly more than anyone has ever hurt us?

How good is Jesus to give us such words to pray? Don’t we all need them as a regular reminder?

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right. But whichever is the case, a conflict is not primarily about winning the argument but winning the relationship. When we speak the truth, we ought to do so in love. And when we or someone else fails to do one or the other, forgiveness ought to follow close behind.

Lord, have mercy.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

Sin, Church Conflict, and the Need for Confession in Public Worship

Over the last five years or so, I have had at least half a dozen pastor friends who have had to leave or resign from their churches on account of various kinds of congregational dysfunction or confict. Even though it’s true that I don’t know many of the details about these individual stories, it almost doesn’t matter. Because while I don’t doubt that there is truth on both sides, my concern is more about how churches and Christians handle these situations. In many cases, these pastors have walked away having to deal with a sort of spiritual PTSD. Whoever’s to blame, these situations leave a lot of wreckage in their wake.

For about 20 years or so now I have been pastoring small, rural Baptist churches. So far I have managed to avoid serious conflicts with the churches I have been privileged to serve. In that way, my family and I have been remarkably blessed. I hope and pray that this remains the case. Yet, I have seen and heard of enough shenanigans, in-fighting, and struggles for power to make me wonder sometimes why anyone still bothers with this thing called “church.” There are moments when it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Then again, there are those who don’t bother with church anymore. A harsh word, a critical remark, or an insensitive comment is all it takes for some to turn tail and run. I can’t say I blame them. How much easier is it to disengage from Christian community than it is to keep pressing forward with it, especially if it’s going to be this painful?

The truth is, despite having said that I’ve not had to deal with serious conflicts in the churches that I’ve pastored, there are ways in which this is still a problem. Bear with me. My point is this: there are people who have left churches while I’ve been pastor, but for the most part I don’t know why they’ve left. Not really. As a pastor you can try to have those awkward conversations with people who have left, but quite often what you’re told is that it has nothing to do with you or anyone at the church. At least that’s my experience. It’s the classic break-up scenario where the one doing the breaking up tries to make the other person feel better: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And I understand. Completely. No one wants a confrontation. No one wants to make anyone else feel badly. Or this is at least the case in the church culture that I’ve been a part of for the last couple of decades. Walking away quietly can seem like the more honourable and respectable approach. No one gets hurt this way. Presumably. Of course, as a pastor it can be incredibly difficult not to take such situations personally. Clergy beyond count have wrestled with these questions in the long watches of the night: “What did I do? What didn’t I do? What could I have done better?”

What this highlights for me is an issue that plagues churches (and I’m sure other communities too) and that is this: an inability to deal maturely with conflict. You can rest assured that whenever a conflict rears its ugly head in a congregation it will often be handled poorly. This is because growing in spiritual and emotional maturity has never really been that much of a priority in churches. Or we equate intellectual knowledge of theology and the Bible with spiritual maturity. Our discipleship has been largely from the neck up. So and so knows so much about the Bible. They’re such a mature and wise believer. Maybe. But maybe not.

I think when it comes to sorting out our thoughts on this stuff, there are a few points that need to be made. One, there will be conflict in churches. Let’s face facts. Stick enough people in a church community and have them spend enough time worshipping and working together, someone will eventually get bent out of shape, annoyed, frustrated and, yes, even hurt. This is going to happen. Count on it.

Facing this is important. Think about it. How many times have you heard people express dismay or disgust at how Christians have behaved? How many people have left churches precisely because someone else in the church has been mean or unkind to them and the shock of this pushed them away? To say nothing of unintentional slights or careless words spoken in haste from otherwise caring people.

Years ago, I was sitting in Tim Horton’s and I overheard a conversation. One person said to another, “You should be in church on Sunday.” The other person said, “Why? I’m just as good as anyone in church.” As if being in church is supposedly for those who are better than others or if the point was simply outward behaviourial change.

But being a Christian and therefore going to church is not about sin management. If it were, the church writ large would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

However, this leads us to the second thing: we are sinners. 1 John 1:8 reminds us: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Accepting Jesus, so to speak, does not change this reality. Now, this reality is not an excuse. We shouldn’t sin so that grace may abound, no. Just because we are tempted to sin is no reason to throw up our hands in resignation, proceed with our sin, and presume God’s forgiveness. But neither should we be altogether surprised when someone who confesses Christ as Lord actually sins–and perhaps against you.

Being able to acknowledge that we are sinners in constant need of grace, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, even outside of specific conflicts, positions us to anticipate those moments when even followers of Jesus fail to love one another. Expecting the Christians around us to be perfect is a recipe for disappointment in the church.

Think of it this way. When we sin, heinously or not, God is not surprised. Our sins of action or inaction do not take him off guard. Why? Because he knows who we are. He knows who I am. He knows who you are. And when it comes to churches, he also knows how the combination of these people in this place will lead to problems. Jesus knows your church, both its strengths and failings.

All this to make clear that my sin reverberates through the church much like a rock thrown in still water. There is, pardon the pun, a ripple effect.

Indeed, that is in part why we gather as a church. We need constant reminding of the good news. We need help to live as Jesus calls us to live. We need confession and absolution when we fail. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to uphold us in prayer, to admonish us, and to encourage us. It is through the ministry of the Body of Christ that God intends to heal us and make us whole by his Holy Spirit. Simply put, we need ongoing repentance and forgiveness. Thankfully, God is more than willing. 1 John 1:9 assures us: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But when we are unwilling or unable for whatever reason to own our sin, and to accept that our fellow Christians are also sinners, conflicts in the church, big or small, become the very thing we are ill-equipped to handle with honesty, mercy and wisdom.

It strikes me as revealing that in many churches, we speak much about the cross, about redemption, even forgiveness, but we never actually confess sin to God, much less to one another in our public worship. Yet in James 5:16 we read: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

This is a problem. Much of the church culture with which I am familiar is deeply uncomfortable with the biblical practice of confessing our sins to one another, primarily, I think, because we largely don’t feel safe doing so. But I think this is because we simply haven’t found ways of doing so that are genuine and safe.

This is my next point. I think there needs to be some means of acknowledging in public worship our sins against God and one another.

Now, it’s fair to ask: Is confessing sin in our public worship important? Why can I not confess my own sins in the quiet of my home, away from the judgmental gaze of the person sitting behind me in church on a Sunday morning? More to the point, doesn’t Jesus tell me to pray privately?

Yes, Jesus does instruct his followers to pray in private. Here’s what he actually says:

Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6

But the context, as always in Scripture, is vital. Jesus was contrasting sound spiritual practice with the sort that sought the reward of public recognition. And there is a world of difference between praying for the applause of others and confessing our sins to one another. Consider what Paul writes:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Colossians 3:12-14

We can’t obey Scripture like this in the privacy of our home away from other believers.

Moreover, the problem with restricting all confession to our private prayers is that this neglects the very real fact that my sin doesn’t only affect me. We tend to have a very individualistic outlook even as Christians, given we are called to accountability with other believers. So we conclude: If no one knows my sin, how can it affect anyone else? Yet, even my most private sin impacts others. I don’t exist in a spiritual vacuum. My relationship with God is not cordoned off from the relationships I have with the people in my church. Whenever something is off between myself and my Lord, things will be off in how I relate to people in church. All of our sin is relational, both vertically and horizontally.

Take, for example, a sin of omission: the neglect of prayer and Bible reading. I would think of this as sin because I am failing to avail myself of two primary means of grace God provides so I can draw nearer to him and become more Christlike, which is his will for me. And if I am not doing this as a member of Christ’s church, then I am also unable to bless other people in the church. If I am not a prayerful person (or hopefully and gradually becoming a more prayerful person, which is where most of us are), then this will profoundly affect my participation on any church committee, board, or ministry team. For instance, I may want to push for a decision that needs more prayer. Or to put it another way, someone who is being more deeply formed by their time in Scripture may bring wisdom to the table someone who neglects time in Scripture cannot.

One means of this is to include a unison prayer of confession. Of course as I say this, let me confess: as a pastor I have not yet led our congregation to do this. In my pastoral prayers, I have often (but not always) included such words of repentance, an acknowledgement of our sin, and an assurance of forgiveness. This is not the same, however, as giving the congregation an opportunity to say such words themselves. That matters.

Take this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as an example:

Almighty God and Father, we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, raise us up to serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Praying this or a similar prayer in public worship is not only a matter of confessing particular sins of which we are aware. I sin without always being aware of it. I don’t always decide to sin; I am sinful. Since I am a sinful person, everything I am and do is tainted by sinfulness. That is, sin concerns more than discrete sinful actions; it concerns my innate tendency to choose sinfully.

I think such congregational prayers would allow us to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners and our relationships with one another stand in regular need of spiritual repair. Incorporating prayers of confession and assurances of forgiveness into our public worship also means we needn’t divulge personal information in an indiscrete way. There may be occasions when confession of specific sins during times of public worship is actually important and necessary, but in such cases leaders need to act with sensitivity, wisdom, grace, and discernement. Confession is meant to lead to healing, not to deeper shame or embarrassment.

Here’s the thing: I am not saying that simply praying such words, however we choose to do so, in our congregational worship is a silver bullet against the poor handling of sin and conflict in the church. But we are still responsible as brothers and sisters in Christ to cultivate a spiritual environment where we can have a mature assessment of our mutual sinfulness and deeper appreciation of God’s grace in Christ. Doing this in community is how we work the gospel into our relationships. The church needs the leaven of humility and honesty to be healthy and effective. Because it’s simply not enough for those of us who are Christians, who confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, to try and deal with sin outside of congregational life. This risks an evasion of the very reality we are seeking to acknowledge: that we are indeed sinners against God and one another and that God in Christ has made possible reconciliation.