Church. It’s meant to be a lovely place.
People are supposed to see church gatherings and say, “Oh look! That’s what God is like.” That’s why the Bible calls church the body of Christ. (Ephesians 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 12; Colossians 1:24).
It’s where we are meant to highly value, care for, and demonstrate love for others. (John 13:34; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26). Which all sounds nice! Except for when we…don’t.
Valuing, caring, and demonstrating are not things that just happen. They are each an act of will and the trouble of church is when someone acts out their own will right up in our face.
When confronted with a not so valuing, caring, demonstrating kind of behavior at church, what are we supposed to do?
Tip #1: Deal with difficult people: directly.
Once upon a time, things got ugly between apostles Peter and Paul. Peter decided to blow off his Gentile friends and only sit with his visiting, religious buddies. (Gal 2:11-13)
In front of everybody, Paul gave Peter a first century version of, “Being a sanctimonious jerk is not cool when you’re a believer.”
So, if a person is not valuing, caring and demonstrating like a church member ought, it might be on you to let them know. Sometimes that’s direct and “in the presence of all” as Gal 2:11-21 points out. However, Matthew 18:15 says to keep it just between the two of you. Which is to say, there are a lot of ways to get the point across, and this is pivotal.
Our current generational social media experience of expressing or addressing conflict is not great. Diplomatic, purposeful disagreements can actually be a first best step to refine the direction our church is going (not to mention our character) and recommit to the greater cause of Church – to love one another and help each other grow in the knowledge of God, like iron sharpening iron. (Proverbs 27:17)
We need not let disagreements ruin our relationships. Peter and Paul didn’t. (2 Peter 3:15-16).
So, first step, address the problem, but do so in a way that respects the benefits of conflict and also underscores a desire for reconciliation.
Tip #2: Deal with difficult people: charitably.
Somehow we’ve all neglected to get comfortable with the idea that churchgoers are not going to look that great. Like, a lot.
Jesus said, “By this, all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). We know right there that if our first admonition is to love, it’s because we’re going to need forgiveness and affection and kindness and a lot of other things that do not rhyme with words like “uncomplicated” or “perfect.”
Churchgoers have never been perfect, which means churches have never been perfect. Committing to a concept that has inherent flaws is…well…frankly…the way God set this thing up.
There’s no need to rally ourselves into thinking church is something other than it is: beautiful and hard. If God doesn’t shy away from that, then why should we?
Yet, when people are difficult in church, that can hurt us more than outside the church. We hold churchgoers to a different standard, which is a good thing (refer back up to Tip #1) and also an unrealistic thing, since walking out faith has always been a lifelong journey, not a destination.
It was true from the earliest churchgoers. Even having been first on the scene, in short order, they were being told they needed to “wake up!” (Rev 3:2) and were prone to “forsake their first love (God)” (Rev 2:4).
We need to be charitable with one another, in love, as we proceed. It’s more of a choice and less of a feeling, more of an action than a reaction.
Loving people in that way is the Church’s legacy. In fact, Church is the place where this philosophy was borne and sprouted out into society – that all human beings are precious and worthy of dignity because every one is created in the image of God.
It stands to reason then, that trying to love in a way that honors God’s unique creations might take a few personalities with different agendas. That can stir things up - sometimes in a good way.
The first century churches stirred each other up to love and good deeds, and gathered together for encouragement (Heb 10:24-25).
May we take a moment right here to offer the writer of those lines a thank you and you really nailed it because stir us up in love and good deeds and also encouragement? We need it all.
We’re built for connectedness. We want to love and be loved, and we need each other’s unique selves to pull that off, with guidelines based on a blend of Scripture, tradition, practicality, and culture that are fleshed out as we live life together. (Matthew 12:28 and Matthew 20:25).
That takes a special kind of agility, which works out okay since we serve an agile God. He is corporately bent and also uncompromisingly personal at the same time.
“I will walk among you and be your God and you will be my people…I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” (Lev 26:12-13)
We may very well be able to do just that in church, a la addressing difficulties among ourselves with both sides of an important proverbial coin: deliberate forthrightness and also charitable love.
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Janelle Alberts writes pithy Bible synopses and is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. Find out more about Alberts here.