There’s a chorus sometimes sung in churches that’s entitled “Unity.” It starts like this:
Jesus, help us live in peace
From our blindness set us free,
Fill us with your healing love,
Help us live in unity.
That’s easier sung than done! Conflict is an inevitable part of life, not least in churches. Perhaps especially in churches, because God, God’s will, and God’s Word so often seem to be at stake. And also because we’d like our churches to be warm, friendly places where we all get along…or should get along, because we are supposed to love each other.
What churches find themselves in conflict over ranges widely, from the color of the carpet to how we worship, what the budget should look like, and how to include people who are different and who don’t appear to abide by our moral standards.
The latter was the conflict that the early church faced in Acts 15, the main scripture for our worship on Sunday, Jan. 25. Their conflict was this: whether, and on what conditions, should the church include “Gentiles,” that is, persons who had not grown up as Jews? (Today we might say persons who do not come from Christian backgrounds and who have lived a wild lifestyle.) And this conflict was a lot more serious than the color of the pew cushions. The authority of scripture, sacred religious tradition, and the holiness of the church seemed to be at stake.
Instead of trying to avoid their conflict, as churches often try to do, the church in Acts meets it head on. They convene a big meeting in Jerusalem to sort through the issues. The process that conference used included several parts. But the key to their successful resolution is alluded to in the second verse of “Unity”:
Many times we disagree
O’re what’s right or wrong to do,
It’s so hard to really see,
From the other’s point of view.
In fact, the Jerusalem conference succeeded in making peace with a volatile issue because the various parties were able to listen and hear each other. As the writer of Acts puts it, “The whole assembly kept silent, and listened.” In their impassioned discussions and disagreements, they succeeded in hearing and seeing “from each other’s point of view.”
Listening well can be a profound act of caring. It is also a spiritual discipline. As we try to listen to each other—not just the words, but the feelings and hurts and hopes and fears behind the words—we show love. Listening well will not guarantee that we will always agree. But it will make an outcome all parties can live with more likely. It will help us discern God’s Spirit. And it will help the church to stay together when it faces its inevitable conflicts.