But the issue is often not the major problem – where there are people there will always be differences of opinion. The problem is that people who have spent years talking about grace, reading books on grace, and going to conferences on grace are suddenly faced with situations in which they need to be gracious and, instead, become… nasty. Followers of the Prince of Peace suddenly decide to go to war. They gather a little army around them, they have war councils in their living rooms and plan the downfall of those they oppose, all the while praying for ‘wisdom, guidance and, above all, that your name may be honoured’.
A great place to see some of this played out is in church AGMs. I have contrasting memories of such occasions. I recall those when godly men and women expressed deeply felt beliefs, but did so with that fruit of the Spirit – kindness. Their remarks might have been direct ? tough, even – but they were gracious. I also remember times when people behaved so badly and spoke with such venom that if the local church were a school it would have excluded them.
I was quite young when I first saw Christians treating each other in this way, and I remember thinking how passionately they must believe in what they were arguing for. In later life I realised that often the agenda item isn’t the big issue at all. Those who complain that the worship is too exuberant and eventually leave often end up joining the church down the road that worships while swinging from the chandeliers. No, the real issue is much deeper – it is about relationships. There are those who are simply not prepared to strive to understand, and show care and concern for those with whom they disagree.
Church is not meant to be that way. Jesus talked about not just inviting your friends to your parties. You can have a room full of like-minded people having fun together in any old club, but life in God’s kingdom is meant to be different. This kingdom is about letting your enemies join in, and what The Message edition of the book of James (2:8) calls ‘the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: “Love others as you love yourself.”’ What it is not about is a group of people with similar views feeding each other’s discontent. Paul expresses this powerfully: ‘I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common’ (1 Corinthians 1:10, The Message). We need to treat this seriously.
This matters to God. It’s why James says: ‘Don’t bad-mouth each other, friends. It’s God’s Word, his Message, his Royal Rule, that takes a beating in that kind of talk. You’re supposed to be honoring the Message, not writing graffiti all over it’ (James 4:11, The Message).
It’s not hard to work out from whom the early Church leaders got this teaching. Even if they were not present themselves, they had heard the story of what went on at that last Passover meal. They knew that he, the Lord of Glory, had washed the disciples’ feet and then said, ‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet... As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ (John 13:14, 34). Within 24 hours he was dead. It mattered so much to him that he had told them that…then.
We sometimes excuse others and ourselves in this area because we say, ‘It’s important to stand up for what we believe is true.’ It is. But it can’t be right to stand up for one bit of truth while simultaneously trashing another.