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The Right Fist of Fellowship
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Photo: M.G. Mooij
I want to tell you about a cartoon that would be funnier if it weren’t so poignant. A church congregation has pews set so that people all have their backs to one another. And the pastor is saying to them, “It’s come to my attention that there’s been a minor split in the church.” Another one, by a Larry Thomas, will make you laugh until you can hear a pin drop, as the saying goes. A secretary comes in to see the senior pastor, and informs him, “The good news is, we’re adding new members. The bad news is, they’re the people who caused all the conflict over at First Church.”
 
Would we be glad for all the renegades from some other church—people who are mad at their pastor, people disgruntled over the music, people up in arms over some theological debate point—to come here to our church? Especially if they got to our parking lot in armored tanks? Because now the feud at “First Church” will be the feud at OUR church.
 
We have all heard heart-rending stories of Adventist churches that were riven by controversy. There is sometimes an infamous “gang of five” who create havoc, to the point where even non-members living in the area know who is in that gang and what the issues of contention are. There are churches where the associate pastor loaths the senior pastor. Sometimes at conference meetings, people will drive long miles for the purpose of torpedoing a pastor they have come to despise. 

So let’s ask today: why are “feudin’ and fightin’” a seemingly unavoidable part of the faith? Why do Christians bicker and beat up on each other. We see in our Bibles that Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, gives us this quiet admonition in Matthew 5:9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. And we could forgive atheists and backsliders for looking through our stained glass windows and maybe deciding that Jesus must have been an only child.
 
Well, God’s word has both bad news and good news for us. First of all, the bad—it’s been like this ever since Bible times. Strife has been going on in God’s church for 2000 years now. If you scan through Galatians, the first couple chapters, it is striking how quickly the church descended into turmoil. Many soon abandoned the gospel of grace, Paul laments, and defected to a “different” gospel. Some people were almost deliberately throwing others into confusion, perverting the Calvary story. In chapter two, there is a battle over “false brothers infiltrating the church in order to spy on the ‘freedoms’” the Christians had in Jesus. It was a fever-pitch battle between legalism and grace; some saints wanted to insist that all new believers adopt the entire Mosaic code of conduct, including circumcision. Instead of being the Christian Coalition, they were actually known as the Circumcision Group. That is an awkward title to put on your website. 
 
Notice what Paul writes beginning with verse 11 of chapter two: When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. So we have here a controversy of theology that Paul feels compelled to address right out in the open, dressing down his co-worker, Peter, by name.
 
So this is the bad news. The good news is that the Bible has ample counsel on this topic of church conflict! The reality that people quarrel and fight is plainly acknowledged many times in the New Testament. The Bible opens up its transcripts, letting us read both the smooth and the rough.
 
The book of James is, according to scholars, likely the first New Testament epistle except for this letter from Paul to the Christians in Galatia. And here the brother of Jesus addresses the fact that war has broken out in the infant church—probably around 50 or 60 A.D. Already the Adventists and Methodists can’t get along! 
 
Notice in 4:1: What causes fights and quarrels among you? That is a question for the ages, isn’t it? And if James really wrote this by 60 A.D., Christians have been looking for the answer to that question for something like 1,950 years now. Interestingly, James gives the answer to his own question:
 
Don’t [quarrels] come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. Other versions add: “Your tempers and passions (Clear Word). “An army of evil desires within you” (Living Bible). In the original Greek we have a couple of words here: polemoi means “quarrels” or “feuds”; machai gives the idea of “contentions.” Notice this same passage from Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase:

The Church of Me

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.
 
Now, don’t think we are murderers and thieves here at this church, but we do want to have our own way!
 
I have to confess that, in my years as a pastor, I’m always aware that I’m battling a clock on Sabbath morning. Often members will make it plain that they want church to be done by noon. Sometimes at 12:05, you can go out into the parking lot and it is already empty. People clear out in a hurry. Anyway, the pastor is always acutely aware of the time. I can be sitting on the platform, behind the pulpit, waiting to preach . . . while someone, let’s say, comes up and does the offering appeal. To me, an offering appeal should take about ninety seconds, and this particular person might go on for five minutes. And inside, I’ll be saying, Come on, move it along here. Hurry up. A person gets up to do the Scripture reading, and begin by saying, “Before I share from God’s Word, just a little story comes to my mind.” Oh no. The most challenging is probably “Sharing Time.” People meander around on all sorts of trivial topics; sometimes the same longwinded person stands up twice in one morning to share from their endless storehouse of sillinesses.
 
And all the while, the selfish part of your pastor’s heart is thinking to itself, Please sit down. Please shut up . . . so that I can finally get up . . . and go for 35 minutes. My own ramblings are wonderful, you see. For all of us, our own voices are music to our ears. 
 
Haven’t we all thought to ourselves: “What a wonderful church this would be if everyone would just do everything my way”? The Adventist Bible Commentary for this passage in James observes that we have a “self-interest that constantly seeks for recognition and satisfaction.”
 
Let me ask today: what kinds of church wars are there?
 
Well, there can always be conflict over worship style—especially music. Many churches have done battle over whether there should be guitars, drums, and PowerPoint lyrics.
 
There might be personality conflicts involving long-running irritations. There have been times when I sensed an unwarranted prickliness between two people, and someone has quietly confided in me, “Pastor, there’s a history there.” Oh.
 
Sometimes fights are caused by hurt feelings or bruised egos. My spouse has sometimes said to me, “Honey, you tease too much.” Humor can be a very tricky, sensitive thing—and people can leave the church feeling hurt.
 
The bloodiest battles, though, are invariably fought over doctrinal disagreements, especially on what are considered “salvific” issues. Teachings where someone is convinced that salvation is at stake. In terms of praise music, for example, this would be where someone thought that the style of music was actually “sinful.” This would be more than “I want my way”; it would be: “This is the Lord’s way.” 
 
There was a moment of notoriety at a recent Adventist General Conference session. A leading conservative scholar had written a book dealing with the growth of contemporary music in the denomination, and he felt strongly that the devil was causing this dangerous drift toward secularism. At the GC session, though, he encountered a group of people who were playing the very kind of music he was sure was a problem. As I heard the story, he took it upon himself to go around back and pull the electrical cord out of the wall. That took care of all the guitars and the singers and the syncopation. But, you see, he honestly felt that lives were at stake.
 
There was a church story a few years ago about a denomination that was grappling with a very explosive theological issue. And one of the concerned spokespersons said, in essence, “If the church is determined to go down this road of heresy, then it will be time for some of us to ‘walk the plank.’” We’ll get into the issue of fighting over truth in a later message, but I can say that there have been a few times where I heard music in church that was so loud, so deafening, so completely unintelligible in terms of a praise message getting through . . . I myself might have been tempted to go and look for the electrical plug in the back. So it’s a temptation we can all understand.
 
Now, there are always disagreements that are innocent; after all, we are in a family here! All families have their routine squabbles and tugs of war. I think I’ve seen just about every kid in our church family cry or bump their egos on something. But the essential core of church conflict—whether expressed in the elegant, archaic tone of the King James Version, or with the cutting-edge language of a new CD-ROM Bible—is the same problem: WE ARE SINNERS! Fighting is a sin, fueled by sin . . . especially nurtured fighting. It’s a sin that gets us coming and going. We have desires that battle within us, and they are wrong desires. So we’re willing to, and locked into, committing the sin of doing battle with one another.
 
Notice what Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians; this is from chapter three. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Now, we all know that babies just get milk at first. We don’t feed our infants burritos and peanut brittle just yet. Like Paul says, they’re not ready for it yet. But he continues:
 
Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?
 
And I admit it—the first time I read this, I was really surprised. Worldly? What image pops into your mind with the word worldly? From an Adventist background, we probably think about someone who dabbles in alcohol, goes to a lot of R-rated movies, wears lots and lots of jewelry, skips church to watch football, and goes on an occasional junket to Las Vegas. That’s “worldly.” But Paul writes here that the sin of quarreling is really the epitome of worldliness.
 
Now, it’s true: the world fights and scraps like this all the time. I’m amused by the fact that I seem to get political mail and spam from both sides of the aisle. Fundraising letters with donkeys and elephants on them . . . both arriving in the same mailbox. And they all have the exact same tone. No one ever talks about their own positive dreams, their lofty goals for America. It’s always: Crisis! Scandal! Look at what they are trying to do to our country! We must stop them! Your urgently needed gift of $25 will send a clear message, etc. One side talks about “George W. Bush and his right-wing agenda.” The other side counters with sinister predictions about “Teddy Kennedy and his liberal friends.” 
 
And when we fight like the world fights, we are being like the world. We’re being worldly.
 
Question: what does the world say to me when a neighbor of mine deserves to be sued? As a Christian, I might think there is a higher court than the one downtown, but the world says no. There’s no higher court beyond this one. This is it! You better sue! God’s people might sense a higher cause, a more important heavenly reality, but the world doesn’t see that. This is the cause. This is the moment. You deserve justice right here and now. Go for a big settlement. As a person who reads the Bible, I might have hope that there is an eternal life beyond this one, and that what happens here today isn’t that big a deal. But the world doesn’t accept that. This is the life! This is the moment! You have a right to be compensated for your bruised feelings. Call Jacoby & Myers today! 
 
And when we take a here-and-now mindset into battle, seeking revenge because we’re not sure God ever will get revenge for us, we are being worldly. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, it’s a kind of Seinfeld-ish “Creed of Constanza,” where George says to his enemy: “This isn’t over. You have my ten dollars, but this isn’t over. I’ll get even. I’ll get my money back somehow. I’ll devote my life to it.”
 
Political commentator George Will is a huge baseball fan. In baseball, it’s a “cardinal” rule that if an opposing pitcher hits someone on your team, you absolutely are going to pay them back. There’s not a chance in the world that you would let a thing like that slide. St. Louis’ Tony LaRussa, who was still managing the Oakland A’s at the time, carefully explains the math of it all. You actually have to hit, in retaliation, the same kind of player they hit. If they hit your superstar, you hit their superstar. If they hit your little shortstop rookie, you plunk their little shortstop rookie. The scales must balance out exactly.
 
Now, here’s the dilemma. Let’s say it’s a close game, and they plunk your guy. It’s the eighth inning; you’re up two to one. LaRussa will actually say to the injured batter, “Look, no question they took a shot at you. But the game’s too close. We can’t take a chance giving them a free runner on base. So we’ll postpone revenge; I promise you we’ll get them tomorrow.”
 
And I was wondering: what if this is the last game of the season between these two teams? Does someone on the team keep track, so that the following spring, they can check their clipboard and then say to the manager, “Uh, skipper, this is the Yankees, remember? We owe these guys one bop on the shoulder and a whack in a third baseman’s kneecap”? I’m kidding a little bit, but this is how the secular world sees things.
 
So what about our title? Extending the Right FIST of Fellowship? Sometimes there are wars where the battleground is the church parking lot, the choir leader is a commando, the deacons are drill instructors and demolition leaders, the parishioners are privates, and the pastor is a renegade general.
 
In their book, The Body, which is a detailed theological study about the church, Chuck Colson and his writing partner, Ellen Santilli Vaughn, tell about a church with the hopefully fictional name, Emmanuel Baptist Church. They get a new senior pastor named Waite. And, no pun intended, he couldn’t “wait” to begin making the rounds, pastoral “visits,” with a little black book. He solicited “dirt” on all the members; he got people to confide in him about all their fellow Christians’ problems. Soon he had so much scuttlebutt, he had to trade in his little black gossip book for a much bigger one. 
 
And then he went to work, using all this juice to intimidate and blackmail people into submission. Colson writes: “The pastor’s talent for getting his own way was as large as the appointment book. One of his pastoral conferences could reduce the most disagreeable church member to sulking silence.” Let’s remember that line from the book of James: Quarrels come about because you want your own way. And here at this church it was following that blueprint with diabolical precision.
 
Soon the church was split right down the middle. Those who liked the new general—I mean, pastor—were sitting on the right. His enemies all sat on the left. (I hope that’s not the seating plan here at our church.) The deacons were trying to hang in there in the middle, front row. And the organist was trying to be like Switzerland and stay out of it, playing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” as often as possible.
 
Finally, one Sunday morning, war broke out. True story—it was Communion Sunday, with the bread and wine in place, and the pastor and his head deacon actually came to blows. They began flailing away at each other in front of the whole church. Two tenors and a baritone jumped over the choir loft rail and joined the melee. The deacon broke his hand in two places; the pastor had two front teeth knocked loose and had a hard time eating corn on the cob at church potlucks for the next couple of years.
 
And finally the cops showed up. Somebody had actually dialed 911, and patrol cars came squealing in to a church parking lot to restore order. They suggested that some of the combatants might need medical care; before driving away they actually confiscated somebody’s potential weapons of mass destruction—a pair of knitting needles. After the court trial was finished, these warring parties drove away from the county courthouse with bumper stickers on their cars which read: “Christ is with us at Emmanuel Baptist Church.”
 
One very troubling dilemma is that the church often accepts warfare and tension and strife and division as simply being the political status quo. “There’s nothing we can do,” they say. Sometimes a local church or conference church institution goes for months or even years ripped with controversy and strife and a simmering resentment. That’s the daily atmosphere. And when anyone tries to gently inform leadership that it simply isn’t a tenable situation, the answer comes back: Live with it. There’s nothing that can be done; the powers that are there are in fixed positions. Bear it if you can—otherwise get out. 
 
This last week as I was thinking about that, I seemed to recall that Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, had some material about the church and protecting the harmony of the church. So I found the book on a shelf and flipped it open. And without even turning a single page, this is the very first paragraph I saw:
 
In his helpful book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor rick Warren makes this observation: “God is very clear that we are to confront those who cause division among Christians. They may get mad and leave your group or church if you confront them about their divisive actions, but the fellowship of the church is more important than any individual.” 
 
He then quotes Titus 3:10: Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. I had to smile when I read the same verse in the King James; notice the unique spelling: A man that is a heretick after the first and second admonition reject. And the Greek word, hairetikos, means “factious” or, a bit more familiar, “contentious.” The Adventist commentary adds this tidbit: “The factious man maintains opinions that are contrary to the established gospel; if these contrary opinions are actively promoted, schism develops, and church members, both old and new, are unsettled in the faith.”
 
Dr. Tony Evans, pastor of a large, successful church in Texas, writes this in his bestseller, The Victorious Christian Life: “When renegade church members bring the infection of discord, disunity, or immorality, the right cells automatically go to work to fight the disease.” Wouldn’t you like to be one of those who has that kind of healing influence?
 
Back in Rick Warren’s book, he mentions a small-group sign-up pledge that people often choose to sign. And notice how these nine promises could be effective at helping to eliminate strife and battles in our church:
 
Small Group Covenant
 
We will:
 1. Share true feelings (authenticity)
 2. Encourage each other (mutuality)
 3. Support each other (sympathy)
 4. Forgive each other (mercy)
 5. Speak the truth in love (honesty)
 6. Admit our weaknesses (humility)
 7. Respect our differences (courtesy)
 8. Not gossip (confidentiality)
 9. Make group a priority (frequency)

I’d like to invite you to consider possible ways where we have come up short on any of these nine principles. And also reflect on the larger reality that our quarrels are actually sin. The stakes are higher than just a broken nose or loose teeth: if we are soldiers, then Lucifer is a general. And the entire Body of Christ loses when we engage in conflict.
 
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes about the very cosmic nature of God’s dealings with us. His plans for His church are so sweeping, so grand, so kingdom-glorious. His entire divine, galactic purpose is to remake each of us in the image of His Son Jesus.
 
And every time we obey, every time we step outside our natural selves and love someone, every time we go against our human Sabbath morning instincts and drive to this place we’re participating in a most glorious and eternal triumph.
 
You know, Jesus’ final prayer before Calvary was this one in the book of John: May they be one, Father, as we are one. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You have sent Me. That gives us a picture of the cosmic stakes.
 
Let me close with a down-to-earth illustration. Many of us like going to a major league baseball game and seeing them win. That’s a lot of fun: the strobe lights, the scoreboard flashing, the players shaking hands on the field. Many stadiums shoot off fireworks; at Dodger Stadium the PA belts out I Love L.A. by Randy Newman. But let me up the ante about three times.
 
This would be even better: to see our favorite team go all the way and win a World Series Game Seven. But even more, let’s say that we are on the team. We’ve prepared for a lifetime to be a part of this organization, to play major league baseball. All our lives we’ve trained and worked for this opportunity. So now we cooperate, we work with our 24 teammates, we follow instructions, we strive for total teamwork and team spirit. We want this Dream Season to end with champagne. Well, okay, Martinelli’s.
 
But let me add just one more layer. All baseball championships last just one season. The following year our triumphant franchise is just another one of thirty teams. It’s a very temporary glory. But what if you could strive, together with your baseball family, for a championship that was eternal? A victory that never expires? That would be worth all sacrifices, wouldn’t it?
 
Many of you can remember sports blowups where players, despite this cosmic possibility, simply could not get along with someone else. Milton Bradley vs. Jeff Kent. Don Sutton vs. Steve Garvey. Twenty years ago these two Dodger superstars just couldn’t be on the same team; they actually came to blows and gave each other black eyes. Dennis Rodman and . . . everybody in the world.
 
But think right now about the galactic Body of Christ. The worldwide Church and all that it means in this dying world.
 
And then: our church here. Think of this history of this congregation: our lows and our highs, our challenges and triumphs. Blessing people. Changing lives. Bringing people together. Feeding them with Bible truth and potluck food. Some of you found your life partners here. Your families started here. This has been a home for many people; it has its mark in our community.
 
So stack up your sometimes hurt feelings, your sometimes rigid opinions, against all that this church can be as a blessing and as a force for Jesus Christ. In other words, don’t let this church be invisible to you; don’t lose sight of it. Don’t allow it to be just an occasional pawn on your chessboard.
 
In his classic book, Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis carries on imaginary conversations between two devils in hell. Uncle Screwtape is writing to his nephew, Wormwood, who is a junior demon in training. And these two imps from the dark side, who should be in terrified awe at the global significance, the cosmic power, of God’s Church, aren’t that duly impressed. Here’s what the older devil writes:
 
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.” Notice this, though: “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.”
 
Dear God, don’t let that be our fate. Don’t let us lose sight of the eternal significance of what we are involved as a part of God’s Church. For two thousand years, God has called us to live by higher cosmic principles: not to deny our feelings, but to prioritize them by this loftier calling. 
 
Shall we pray?
 
Father, we reflect today on how You sent Your own Son—contrary to a Father’s instinct - for the higher calling of salvation. Jesus prayed for His own enemies—contrary to instinct. He died for people who hated Him—contrary to instinct. He forgave His tormenters—contrary to instinct. Help us today to glimpse the cosmic victory we’re commissioned to participate in, and to embrace the harmony that it requires of us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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