Us Versus Them

In any kind of conflict, we humans instinctively feel defensive. Whether it’s a tiff with a spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a boss, we immediately adopt an “us versus them” mentality. It’s just how we’re wired.

Which would be fine if that were how God is wired too. But it’s not.

In that passage we all hate, Jesus said we’re to forgive other believers who hurt us 70 times 7 times, by which He was implying as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22). Why? Because Jesus has forgiven us a million times over – there is nothing He hasn’t forgiven us for – and He wants us to offer the same grace to others (Colossians 3:13).

And He doesn’t want us to just forgive them and part ways. He wants us to forgive them and continue in relationship with them (so far as it depends on us – Romans 12:18). (The obvious exception – when abuse is involved.) I know this because that’s what He does with us. And the longer we spend on this earth, the more like Him we should become (Romans 8:29).

He also tells us Christians to love one another as He has loved us… which begs the question – how has He loved us (John 13:34)? Unconditionally. He literally died for us, and He calls us to figuratively give up our lives for one another. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pens a whopper of a passage. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Completely humble?

Every effort?

But what if I’m tired of trying? What if the other party doesn’t care? Worse, what if the other party continues to hurt me or show no regard for my feelings?

How long do I have to bear with them? Surely there is a statute of limitations… As much as my humanity would love to say there is, I don’t see one in scripture… Jesus’ “bearing with me” and all my crap doesn’t have a time limit. And neither should our bearing with one another.

But wouldn’t it be more “peaceful” for two people in seemingly irresolvable conflict to part ways? Let’s call that what it really is – to divide. Shouldn’t two believers who can’t work things out split up in order to “keep the peace”? After all, “keeping the peace” is biblical… (Romans 12:18)

As much I as I wish it did, that just doesn’t seem congruent with “keeping the unity”… Logically, how can that which is divided also be unified, simultaneously? By definition, it can’t.

Might I propose that between two believers, there ought not be such a thing as “irreconcilable differences”? By the power of the Spirit, at least one of the parties ought to be able to extend grace, humility, love, and mercy… as many times as it takes… and since we can only be responsible for our own actions in any given conflict, our choosing to be the party that makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is all that’s in our control. We can choose to obey scripture, despite our feelings, and despite the other person’s choices.

But if the other person doesn’t seem to care at all about “keeping the unity”, that can make for a pretty crummy situation.

So what then? Are we to just remain in a bunch of miserable relationships – us versus the ridiculous them?

I don’t think so.

After his tall order of how we ought to behave, Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all and through all,” Ephesians 4:4-6.

You see, there is no “us” or “them”. At least there shouldn’t be. Not in the body of believers. We are one.

The people we disagree with – we’re one with them.

The people who hurt our feelings – we’re one with them too.

The believers who outright hurt us time and time again – one.

We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. The Church depends on it. The Gospel depends on it. We have to forsake the “us versus them” mentality that we reflexively assume when someone crosses us.

We believers are one, whether we feel like it or not. We should be rooting for one another to succeed, spurring each other on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Lord, by Your power, may everything we do and say contribute to the unity of Your Body, the Church. We are one. May we act like it.

 

 

Why Church Membership is Important

So my last three posts – When it’s Not Okay to Leave Your Church, When it’s Okay to Leave Your Church, and What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church – all started with a basic presupposition: church membership is important.

Why is church membership important?

But there is an ever-increasing number of Jesus-loving people who don’t share that view. And it makes perfect sense that if you don’t value church membership, you are less inclined to feel like loyalty to your church (or any church, for that matter), is a biblical hill to die on. 

In fact, one of my readers was brave and honest enough to just say what a lot of you may be thinking:

“These last three blogs seem like a whole lot of agonizing over a non-issue to me. If a church is not for you, move on. End of story. And no, don’t feel sad or guilty about it. There aren’t thousands of separate churches. There is one true Church (as in body of Christ that we commit to), and all the separate institutions are just parts of the whole. If you don’t like your building, go to another. Loyalty to a bad/mediocre/not for you church is just silly.”

I so appreciate this comment because it clued me in to the fact that I shouldn’t assume we all value church membership. And we must value membership before we can talk about persevering in our commitments to our churches.

So, why is church membership important? After all, church membership isn’t even in the Bible…

Or is it?

It’s true, you can search for the word “membership” all day long and not find it in the Bible. But if we stop and look at Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings, we find commitment to a local church commanded ad nauseum.

Each letter Paul wrote was to a local church body – at Rome, at Corinth, at Galatia, at Ephesus, at Philippi, at Colossae, at Thessalonica. And in talking to these individual churches, Paul stresses things like unity (Ephesians 4:3, Philippians 2:1-4, Colossians 3:14) and each believer using his spiritual gifts to build up the body (1 Corinthians 12:7, Ephesians 4:12). He emphasizes serving one another (Galatians 5:13) and sacrificing personal freedoms in order to see to the best interests of others (1 Corinthians 9:12, 10:32). Paul commands Roman believers to “be devoted to one another in love,” and to, “Honor one another above yourselves,” (Romans 12:10).

New Testament books written by other people speak to the same topics as well as to believers in local church bodies submitting to church authority figures (Acts 16:4, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:5).

In other words, the majority of the New Testament is about how to do church in the lowercase c sense. And when all the lowercase churches do church the way Paul and others tell them to, the uppercase Church – as in the body of Christ all believers are committed to – is freed up to accomplish its God-given responsibilities to spread the good news about Jesus and to help believers grow in their understanding of Jesus.

Without committing to a local church body – and by that I mean doing more than filling a pew anonymously on some Sunday mornings – how do we live like the New Testament tells us to? When we church hop and/or fly under the radar of church authority by not committing to a local church (which our culture calls “becoming a church member”), it’s hard to be held accountable to live our lives according to the Bible. We have no community context in which to live out the New Testament commands.

If we leave our churches when our preferences aren’t met, how is that being devoted to one another or honoring others above ourselves or sacrificing personal freedoms for the benefit of others?

If we leave our churches every time the Elders make a decision we don’t particularly care for, how is that submitting to their God-given authority?

If we leave our churches every time we have a disagreement with other believers, how is that working toward unity?

If we aren’t committed to our church, who’s going to help us see when we are erring in our ways?

What’s more, it’s difficult (impossible?) for the Church to do its jobs when believers constantly flit from one part of the body to another – from one little c church to the next. It takes time and people to get programs that reach nonbelievers and programs that disciple believers rolling, and it takes commitment from said people to keep them rolling. If we all leave our churches every time we become dissatisfied with something, there is an “us” shaped hole in the ministries in which we were serving/participating, setting the ministries back.

Church membership is the answer to these kinds of problems. It isn’t a commitment to a building, like my friend stated, but, rather, it is an avenue through which we can be encouraged to live our lives according to the New Testament – to love one another, to work out our differences for the sake of unity, to serve others, to submit to elders – which requires a community of believers.

“Church membership” may be a modern term not used in the Bible, but the concept is one of its main themes. The idea that one can be committed to the capital C Church without being actively involved in a local lowercase c church is a myth at best and a lie at worst.

You may love Jesus, and, by His grace, you may be going to Heaven, but the Bible is clear that you can’t live a New Testament life without being committed to your lowercase c church. God desires us to live in accordance with His word because it’s in our best interest to do so and because He is glorified when we obey.

And that, I believe, is a biblical hill to die on.

(Dis)Unity

Our church is entering a time of transition.  A couple of weeks ago, our senior pastor of almost 9 years announced that he and his family are headed to the mission field full-time.  They leave in less than 3 months.  And so the process of finding an interim senior pastor and, eventually, a permanent senior pastor is beginning.

Our church is led by a group of elected elders.  They vote on things to make the decisions for our church (1 Timothy 5:17).  Members can speak freely to the elders at any time, but, ultimately, members do not decide the direction of the church.  The elders do.

In any type of government, ecclesiastical or secular, there is potential for disunity among the governed.  And during times of transition, that potential is even greater.

And I fear the church-fracturing effects of possible dissension within our body at a time like this.

Dave Ramsey has a rule in his corporation.  If you have a problem, a gripe, a complaint of any kind, you can voice it up the chain of command without fear of penalty.  But if you voice it to an employee under you or equal to you in authority, you are fired on the spot.  Why?  Because Dave understands the crippling potential of unhealthy criticism within a body of people.

I fear that members of our church will begin to voice their negative opinions to one another on how they feel the pastoral search is going, spreading disunity like gangrene, focusing our body on lesser things than spreading the Gospel (Romans 15:5-6).

(I fear this not because our church is especially disgruntled but because our church is made up of humans, and humans, as we all know, are bent toward discontent.  So, while this particular post is about my fear for my church, I also fear for your church and the Church at large.)

To be clear, I am all for members voicing their negative opinions to senior staff members and elders.  Do it!  Do it in love (1 Corinthians 16:14; Ephesians 4:15).  You have a voice.  If you feel things are going in the wrong direction, speak up.  But speak up to those who have the ability to change things, NOT to your fellow members.   Spreading negativity within the congregation is not fruitful.  In fact, the destructive effect of such speech cannot be overstated.

And it plays right into Satan’s hand.

Satan wants our church to fold.  He wants us to split over whoever the new senior pastor is.  He wants to divide us, pitting members against members, directing our attention to ourselves and our preferences so we will have no energy left to spend on loving people like Jesus did.  Satan wants to stir our pride against our elders to convince us that they are incompetent so we dwell on our anger and bitterness each Sunday instead of worshiping our resurrected Lord together.

Paul understood what was at stake.

In Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:3-4).

In Colossians he wrote, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity,” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Part of this unity that we should strive for includes submitting to the elders – and their decisions – even if we disagree with them.  The author of Hebrews puts it succinctly, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you,” (Hebrews 13:17).

We won’t always agree with our leaders.  And that’s okay.  What matters is what we do with our disagreements.  We can handle them rightly by discussing them with those in authority over us, or we can handle them wrongly – sinfully – by discussing them with those around us.  Ultimately, though, Scripture commands us to submit to those in authority over us, whether we like it or not.

If you are in a church where you are unwilling to submit to its leaders, figure out why that is.  The leaders may not be acting in accordance with Scripture.  If that’s the case, leave that church!  Go find a Bible believing church to be a part of.

But if it turns out you are unwilling to submit to the leaders for personal reasons instead of biblical reasons, ask the Lord to work the rebellion out of your heart.  Ask Him to cut out your bitterness and your pride.  Ask Him to help you authentically and properly submit to your church leaders and, more importantly, to Him.

Your church’s unity – THE Church’s unity – depends on it.