A Case Study in Conflict Resolution

Sermon at Living Water Church Community by Sally Schreiner Youngquist 

Reference Texts: 

Acts   15:1-35  case study of how the early church worked out a conflict

Romans 14 & 15  Paul’s advice to churches dealing with conflicts over divisive issues

I. Biblical case studies

We can learn a lot about conflict resolution tools from the Bible’s teachings about how to imitate the love of Christ in dealing with our enemy.

A.  Acts 15: We can also learn a lot from the “case studies” in the New Testament, sharing examples of how the early church worked through conflict.  Undoubtedly the biggest one came up when the good news of Jesus bringing the Kingdom of God was opened up to people who were not Jewish.   They were not biological heirs of the promise originally given to Abraham and his descendants.  The Jews had had hundreds of years of training of how NOT to imitate the bad behavior of non-Jews and how to live separate and uncontaminated from them.  Now they were being asked to accept them into their relational lives and have table fellowship with them when they hadn’t even made a full conversion to being Jewish.  This was a hot, painful, emotional matter taking many years of dialogue and experience to settle.

The story found in Acts 15 models a unique set of steps by which the churches leaders found unity amid their diversity on what to do with the new Gentile believers:

  1. Conflict arises out in the mission field between Judaizers and Paul over whether new Jewish converts need to be circumcised.  After hot debate and no resolution, the church decides to send Paul and Barnabas back to the church leaders in Jerusalem to seek guidance from a higher authority (kind of like taking an unsettled local court case to the Supreme Court).
  2. Reporting and listening:  the missionaries go to the recognized church leaders in Jerusalem and report the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s activity among the Gentiles. 
  3. After debate  the apostles and elders then seek the Spirit’s guidance and employ discernment. Peter gets up and confirms through his own experience the recognition that God has given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles without requiring circumcision. Salvation comes only through the grace of Jesus, and not through works or rigid obedience of the law.
  4. The missionaries report the work of the Spirit to the entire church,  James, the acknowledged Jewish leader of the church, confirms through Scripture God’s intent to save the Gentiles too.
  5. A compromise between Jewish moral and dietary practices and pagan ways is struck by James, asking the missionaries to teach the new Gentile converts to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from consuming meat from a strangled animal and from blood and also from fornication.
  6. The church sends representatives back to the mission field to communicate a letter with the above decisions, saying “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose no further burdens on you than these essentials.”  (Acts. 15:28)  The message is received with joy.

Paul’s Epistles

B.  We know from reading Paul’s letters that the decision of the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts 15, wise as it was,  did not settle all the controversies between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus for good.  It turns out that it was pretty difficult for Gentiles living out in the Roman Empire to find any meat to eat that hadn’t been sacrificed to idols.  Some just ate the meat in Christian freedom; others felt guilty or were critical of others who did so.  Romans 14-15 are full of Paul’s instructions of how strong Christians unperturbed by what they eat or drink should take care not to cause weaker members full of dietary scruples  to stumble.  His instructions are all about seeking a higher unity, based on love of God and love of fellow brothers and sisters.

20 centuries later, the church is still seeking unity amidst diversity. Here’s one recent example from Reba Place Fellowship

(Here is more information on the history of Reba Place Fellowship as an intentional Christian community)

I want to describe to you a slow, 3-year conversation  that’s been taking place among this RPF bonded group of 54 with a strong desire to maintain Christian unity even while discussing the deeply divisive matter in the Christian church today of whether God allows marriage between people of the same sex.

II.  I want to share a chronology of what our process has involved:

About every three years RPF invites a small group of trusted outsiders to come do a “check up” of our community, tell to us what we’re doing well and what we need to work on.  In our June, 2011 Visitation – Homosexuality* was named as a divisive topic among us needing open, honest, nuanced conversation without immediate intent to change policy (from the traditional stance)

[*we have since learned a preferred term for people with same sex attractions is “sexual minorities.  For a while we used the term LGBTQ, but we came to realize we were limited enough in our experience and scope of study not to try to encompass transgender people or the ambiguity of the definition of queer.”]

Tim Otto, a member of the visitation team from Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco said to us:

Homosexuality came up a lot in conversations and in the [pre-visitation] surveys. I am encouraged by John Howard Yoder’s words, “Peace happens as we head into conflict.” Unity comes from people with differences talking and hoping the Holy Spirit shows up. I can see the Holy Spirit has already been showing up here. Folks on the traditional side say, “We need to hear from gays and lesbians.” Folks on the affirming side say, “We need to be honoring the [church’s] tradition but be able to hear many voices.”

[Tim went on to say about himself]

I’m gay and a deeply committed Christian. I went into nursing to work on the AIDS ward. I heard lots of stories of gays feeling unlovable and seeking out sex to be loved. I saw partners caring sacrificially for their loved ones. I am attracted to the affirming position. I also see wisdom in the Biblicism of Anabaptists [on the traditional side.] The world is looking for the witness of people with real differences who live together in unity.

Fall, 2011 – We formed a Dialogue Steering Committee of people with diverse viewpoints (including a gay participant) to help design a good process for dialogue among us.  We made up recommended reading lists and encouraged folks to read from a viewpoint different from their own.  We used Tim Otto, a gay celibate Christian man writing a book on this topic, as a speaker and ongoing consultant.  Books by Jenelle Williams Paris (The End of Sexual Identity) Tim Otto (Oriented to Faith), Justin Lee (Torn), and Ken Wilson (A Letter to My Congregation) were particularly helpful over the course of our conversation.

Winter, 2012 – Jan-April during Lent– We had intentional dialogue in each of our regular small groups (where bonding and safety were high) for folks to share openly of experiences and convictions they had developed about sexual minorities, same sex marriage for Christians, etc.  Folks were urged to pray, read, and do personal reflection in preparation for sharing their stories and convictions.  We were asked to prepare for open, respectful, non-judgmental conversation as we listened to one another.  We had a broad range of life experience among us.  For example,  one member had a father, brother, and husband who were all gay.  One couple has a daughter in a committed lesbian marriage with children.  One member had been on the board for 20 years of an Exodus affiliate ministry giving support to Christians seeking celibacy or transformation for same sex attractions.  A couple participants identified as gay or bisexual.  Our differing convictions did not split neatly along a young vs. old member continuum.

After our Lenten small group sharings,  we took a survey to see where we all fit on a spectrum.  We found diversity but more were towards the affirming side or in the middle than all the way at the end of traditional end of spectrum.  There was strong conviction that maintaining our unity was more important than dividing on this issue. 

We determined the next thing we needed to do was to study the Bible and the particular Bible texts which are used to seek God’s intent for people with same sex attractions.  But to do that, we wanted to first look at the Bible more broadly and how we interpret it.

Fall, 2012- Summer, 2013  – We launched a “Year of the Bible focus,” using different teachers among us, to look at the big picture of Biblical revelation from Genesis to to the end of the NT and talk about how we interpret and understand the different literature in the Bible.  Some of our learnings:

  • The Bible contains different contributors’ voices which don’t always agree.
  • Jesus is the best lens through which the Bible is most helpfully interpreted.
  • It’s important to try to understand the context of what was going on in the time a text was written before trying to see how a text can then be relevant to a different situation today.

Fall, 2013 – Spring, 2014  We divided into small dialogue groups, formed with intentional mixing of people with differing perspectives, led by a designated facilitator, to read, study and discuss authors making a biblical case for the affirming and traditional sides of this issue, looking at the particular verses which are cited as speaking out against same sex relations.  There are scholars we respect making a credible case for how these scriptures can be understood and applied differently.

Spring, 2014 – We took another survey to see what topics members yet wanted to pursue on LGB matters.  We also welcomed members to begin sharing proposals of what it might look like for RPF to live with some kind of Third Way compromise to accommodate the differing convictions of folks within our community yet be more welcoming to LGB people.

A Meeting of Reba Place Fellowship

A Meeting of Reba Place Fellowship

Fall, 2014 – Winter, 2015 – We investigated the experience of LGB people, hearing from different resource people: 

  • author Tim Otto, a celibate Christian man, advocating we find and model a Third Way—neither entirely traditional nor entirely affirming—to the broader Christian church
  • a Unitarian woman doctor and teen-aged child from a stable, 30-year lesbian marriage with 3 kids
  • a Christian man with same sex attractions and past sexual activity with both men and women, living celibate 15 years and running support groups for men to adopt sexual sobriety
  • Christian parents of a Christian daughter in a stable lesbian marriage with two kids.

Spring, 2015  – We concluded this phase of the discussion by asking each member to share a 2-minute statement of where they were at on welcoming LGB people to RPF

Spring – (the present) Summer, 2015 – Our RPF Dialogue Team drafted a Third Way proposal, got feedback, and submitted a finalized proposal for a vote of the members. 

Disciplines and postures we have found important along the way

  • Recognizing the great complexity of this matter and trying not to over-simplify it.
  • Taking all the time we needed to go through many steps of exploration – not feeling under pressure to hurry, but not stalling to evade discomfort or possible discord – not rushing to make policy decisions but to make open dialogue the main initial agenda.
  • Real relationships with people who have same sex attractions and inviting their participation in this dialogue—that definitely provided a level of accountability and groundedness in keeping the conversation real.
  • Careful, respectful listening.
  • Trying not to taking an argumentative or debating stance.
  • Cultivating humility in recognizing we may not know or understand everything about this matter and may need more light (Pastor Amos mentioned humility earlier in our LWCC conflict resolution series as a key to working through conflict).
  • A Reba Place Fellowship Household

    A Reba Place Fellowship Household

    Caring well for each other in the midst of potentially divisive issues where some have more emotional baggage or have more at stake in the outcome than others.
  • Engaging in prayer, worship and attention to scripture throughout the process.
  • Seeking out resource people and books to inform ourselves & constantly updating our list of recommended resources – lots of helpful resources have been published since we started our dialogue process. 
  • Study and dialogue helped us develop some common understandings and vocabulary.
  • Reviewing our biblical understandings on broader and related issues of sexuality, singleness, celibacy and faithfulness in marriage.
  • Openness to the Spirit as we approached the discernment stage of reviewing and revising our policy.
  • Desire to hold onto some fundamental “narrow way” Christian moral teaching about covenanted relationships being the proper context for full sexual intimacy whether talking about gay or straight Christians.
  • Desire to maintain Christian unity and not split over this matter.
  • Trust in God to lead us forward, recognizing we are on a journey within a culture undergoing great upheaval in social norms.
  • Seeking to model our behavior after Jesus, who exhibited love and foot washing even towards those who were about to betray him.
  • Keeping love our aim (a point made by Ronn earlier in this LWCC series on conflict resolution).

Conclusion

Personally, I would like to say that I have witnessed and experienced transformation in myself as well as seen it in our RPF group as a result of taking this 3 1/2-year journey together. I have progressed from fear to greater faith.  I emerge with more hope that God can and will keep us together and help us come to a better place collectively than we could reach separately incorporating the diverse gifts and perspectives of the body.  I hold out this hope for our denomination, the Mennonite Church USA which is involved in a similar struggle within a much larger context than RPF.

A scripture which has been inspirational and reassuring for me is a description of Jesus and the work of Jesus which comes from Colossians 1:  17-20.   I learned at the Ekklesia Project Gathering this weekend that a group called the Colossian Forum, which promotes helpful models for Christians talking about hard issues, also takes this verse as a foundation.  This group wants to transform challenging issues into opportunities for our sanctification and witness as disciples of Jesus.

Here’s the verse:

He [Christ Jesus] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Amen!  May it be so.

Here is the final position paper adopted by Reba Place Fellowship