October 6, 1997
When Christians Fight Christians
The Spirit unites, but the American church divides. A field guide for discerning how to handle Christian controversy.
For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?" Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, and later commented: "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" (1 Cor. 3:3 and 6:7; all quotations taken from the NIV).
"Worldly." "Completely defeated." Would the apostle Paul use similar words to describe the vital, innovative, quarreling church in America today?
I was startled recently when I went through the news columns of Christianity Today for 1996 and found over a dozen good-sized fights reported among American Christians. (No doubt hundreds of other fights were too local to make national news.) They included the full gamut of quarrels over property, doctrine, money, leadership. Even though I had read all these stories as they appeared, I had not taken in their cumulative effect. The frequency of our fighting left me numb.
Fighting among Christians is nothing new, of course; it dates from New Testament times. It's hard to say whether we fight more than Christians in previous periods. I suspect more, but I can't prove it. I do know that we fight differently.
CASE STUDY NO. 1: ACA
I stumbled into the beginning of this fight several years ago while researching an article. The founding figure of the organization--I'll call it ACA, for A Christian Agency--had recently moved on. The board had turned over leadership to a new man from outside the organization.
I was not long in their building before I sensed a culture gap. The staff were a bookish group, deeply dedicated to thoughtful, measured approaches. The new leader was a hard-charging crusader, eager to put his distinctive stamp on the organization. Most of the staff members lived on a pittance. They had grown up in the organization and saw themselves akin to missionaries. The new leader was accustomed to living well, and he had no sense that because others had lived frugally he should do the same.
While I visited ACA, a strained cordiality reigned. Apparently that did not last long. Some staff left ACA voluntarily; a good number were "laid off." After one particularly large group lost their jobs, they made their complaints public. One laid-off staff member sued ACA for wrongful dismissal. ACA filed a countersuit. This dispute was eventually settled out of court.
Meanwhile, other former staff members formed a committee to approach the ACA president and his board with their questions and concerns. They got nowhere. Their entreaties, they say, were answered with threatening letters from ACA's lawyers. They got neither a face-to-face meeting nor answers to their complaints. When you listen to members of this group, it sounds as though they did everything they could to reach a meeting of minds but got stonewalled.
ACA leaders say they willingly met with individuals. But they saw the committee as a power tactic, intended not to facilitate communication but to force the board's hand. ACA leaders were not willing to accord the committee the status it sought by granting a meeting. Nor did they feel obliged to answer every charge the committee raised.
To this day, both sides consider themselves essentially blameless. They have never met to try to resolve their differences, and they aren't talking to each other yet. Both sides grow frustrated at the very mention of the other side's names. It is a thoroughly nasty and unresolved quarrel.
AN OUT-OF-CHURCH EXPERIENCE
First, it is more likely today for Christians to turn to litigation. Of course, Christians have been suing each other at least since the time of the Corinthian church, but I believe it would be accurate to say that lawsuits have been exceptional. Our grandparents would never have pondered their chances of being sued as they steered their way through church quarrels. Today, it is a rare battle that doesn't have a lawyer involved.
Steve McFarland of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) says that Christians go to court thinking they are going to get justice. Instead, they get incredible delays, terrible costs, and in the end, a very doubtful chance at justice. In the case of ACA, the moment a suit was filed, lawyers were advising all parties not to talk to each other for fear of damaging their "case." (Of course, this can be an excuse; after the suits were dropped, the parties still wouldn't talk.) Lawyers' tactics are rarely designed to bring reconciliation.
A second modern distinctive: the parties to the ACA fight were board members, staff members, lawyers. Church authorities--pastors and elders--did not play a significant role. No church or denominational structures intervened or provided a place to air differences.
Sociologist Tony Campolo notes that over half of American Christians now attend an independent church, detached from any intercongregational structure that has the power to encourage reconcilation. And in many congregations, independent or otherwise, church discipline is weak or nonexistent.
Nonetheless, even independent churches retain one tool for resolving conflict that was missing in the ACA example--namely, a real community. Parachurch organizations have grown dominant in missions and evangelism, in all forms of communication (print and broadcast), in service to the poor, in political and social advocacy, and even in defending doctrinal orthodoxy. The battles of parachurch organizations like the ACA are necessarily outside the discipline of any church body. They are governed ultimately by each organization's constituents, who are often "constituents" only through the checks they write.
Many modern Christian fights carry on in this netherworld of independent direct-mail-funded organizations, where fundraising and communication with donors are the most pressing realities. (Modern American politics is carried on in a similar environment.) They provide no nexus for resolving conflict, and no community to press the partisans to make peace.
There can even be an incentive to quarrel. If you can make the case in your newsletter or on your radio show that you are fighting for principle (and who isn't?), then your "community of donors" may actually give more. Fighting tends to shut down contributions in a local church, but it may increase giving to parachurch organizations that successfully spin the dispute into a matter of honor or a point of identity.
Who will give it? American Christianity is increasingly fragmented. Quarreling Christians nowadays don't meet accidentally, as people did in small towns or small denominations. The social structures that would make the other party difficult to avoid are not there.
This is not to suggest that people in small towns don't fight. They do, of course. Euodia and Syntyche did in the first century. They needed someone to step in and help them. Paul took their quarrel on and enlisted someone in the Philippian church to take an active, hands-on, peacemaking role.
What would that look like today? A peacemaker needs to have authority in both persons' (or both organizations') lives. In ruptured modern society, such a person may not exist. That's why structures need to be reinvented.
The leaders of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR), an umbrella group of apologetic and cult-watching organizations, have tried to invent such a structure. They observed "an increasing number of disputes and unhealthy divisions" and so developed a detailed "Manual of Ethical and Doctrinal Standards." The 45-page document (released this year) spells out standards on such matters as plagiarism, self-representation, reporting on and criticizing other Christians, and divorce and remarriage. It also sets out a process for ethical complaints against other members of EMNR, beginning with the private and church procedures outlined in Matthew 18:15-20, going on to Christian mediation or arbitration, and finally, if no successful reconciliation can be reached, ending with disciplinary action by the EMNR board.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether and how the process will be used. The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) have long had a much-less-detailed code of ethics, including a process for bringing complaints against other members. The climate of religious broadcasting has not been noticeably peaceful, however, probably because broadcasters feel little concern over the censure of the NRB. Would their donors and viewers be moved?
Nonetheless, we need umbrella groups that are willing to spell out right behavior and to provide an authority that insists that wrong be made right. No power on heaven or earth can force people to behave like Christians; you can't coerce reconciliation. Structures can, however, provide peacemakers and moral pressure. The more they are used, the more their significance will grow.
This has become a hallmark of the work of the Evangelical Alliance in England (which has a mission similar to the National Association of Evangelicals in the U.S.). When the "laughing revival"/Toronto Blessing jumped the ocean and landed in Britain, it threatened to divide evangelicals along charismatic/noncharismatic lines. EA's then director, Clive Calver, now head of World Relief in the U.S., intervened by calling a meeting of various institutional heads of the conflicting groups. He locked them in a hotel room with instructions that they could not come out until they issued a joint statement on the Toronto Blessing. Amidst some grumbling, the group eventually earned their liberation by coming up with a list of affirmations and warnings that they could all sign. The subsequent "laughing revival" has been remarkable for its lack of controversy. Everyone knew the criteria by which it would be judged.
While protest is not new, it has
come to be our first and main
reflex when something troubles us.
Another strategy for peacemaking is the use of mediation ministries. Even secular corporations increasingly rely on mediation and arbitration simply because it saves time and legal expenses. In nearly all states, a contract containing a "conciliation clause" stating that disputes must be resolved through mediation (voluntary agreement) and arbitration (a mandated settlement determined by an arbitrator after a formal hearing of evidence) will be enforced by the courts.
Christians have an added incentive for using mediation and arbitration: they can settle disputes in a Christian way. The CLS's Steve McFarland recommends that every church and Christian organization include a conciliation clause in its terms of employment and other contracts. People fear, he says, that mediation will try to impose a kiss-and-make-up solution, bypassing the facts that require justice. In reality, he says, properly conducted mediation and arbitration seeks justice as well as peace. Mediators can and should be experienced and knowledgeable in the area of dispute. They gather facts and offer carefully constructed settlements.
Several national organizations offer trained, Christian mediation and arbitration services. Best known are Mennonite Conciliation Services, Peacemaker Ministries (a spinoff of the CLS), and the Alban Institute. Peacemaker's Ken Sande says that most of their work is at a local level, helping to resolve family and business disputes. Occasionally Peacemaker is asked to help with "major Christian figures," but Sande has often found them resistant to conciliation. "They have a hard time believing there are people competent to deal with their cases. When threatened, they tend to go quickly to an attorney. They're usually more comfortable with an attorney."
CASE STUDY NO. 2: ECT
The statement soon encountered strong opposition on the evangelical side. R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, and other Reformed theologians complained that the statement compromised on basic theological positions, particularly the Reformers' creed of "salvation by faith alone." The dispute became quite public, fittingly for a concern over foundational doctrine. But as often happens, both sides grew entrenched in their positions, and emotions became hot.
Then, wonderfully, peacemakers stepped in, asking the evangelical partisans to talk through their differences. After protracted negotiations, a meeting was planned for January 19, 1995, at pastor D. James Kennedy's Fort Lauderdale church.
It was an extraordinary all-day meeting of leaders. Campus Crusade for Christ's Bill Bright, theologian J. I. Packer, and Colson represented those who had signed the declaration. The anti-ECT faction included pastor John MacArthur, theologians Sproul and Horton, television host John Ankerberg, and Kennedy. Joseph Stowell, president of Moody Bible Institute, served as moderator. John Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School came to facilitate discussion.
Both Jesus and Paul spoke harsh
words of truth on occasion,
but they were best known for
building a new community of love.
The morning's talks were brutally frank and highly emotional. By the end of the day, however, these leaders had come together. There were tears and embraces as they signed a statement clarifying the theology of ECT. Colson called the meeting "a beautiful example of how Christians should deal with their differences."
Several participants said that Stowell had done a masterful job of moderating. I asked Stowell what such a peacemaking meeting required. He mentioned several factors:
First, he said, it is very important that all participants really want a constructive result. The goal may be simply to understand each other. But if participants aim only to vent their anger, to "get" or "reprove" the other party, reconciliation is unlikely.
Second, he said, you need something drafted ahead of time if you hope to emerge with an agreement. Packer had brought a statement to Fort Lauderdale that served as a solid starting point. "If you have no predraft," Stowell said, "then trying to write in a group like that is an excruciating thing. You'll never get it done."
Third, Stowell noted, a neutral meeting place is important. While Kennedy's church was not perfect (Kennedy's sympathies were clear), it at least avoided the headquarters of one of the more outspoken battlers.
Fourth, Stowell felt it was important not to rush into a solution. "You have to let people vent enough so that they actually get all the junk on the table. If guys have really been wounded, those wounds have got to show. It has to get personal enough so that guys really get honest about what they feel."
Part one of two parts; click here to read part two.
Copyright(c) 1997 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Christianity
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