A teachable moment

June 21, 2011 | Editorial | Number 13
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Have we learned anything about resolving church conflict in the past 50 years?

After reading the painful account of the German/English language dissension resulting in several congregational splits (“Changing the language of worship is a test of love,” page 4), our faith community should take a contemplative look at how to redeem this blot on our past.

The language conflict of yesteryear, arousing deep passions and inflamed tongues, is not a pretty picture.  Professed fellow Christians, abandoning any semblance of “brotherly love,” hurled such insulting charges as, “those who are ashamed of their origin and of German or Low German . . . of course, are beneath contempt.”

Or worse, those young people who refuse to speak the language of their parents and lack respect for their elders “are truly the most despicably egotistic and false creatures on earth.”  Or characterizing those abandoning the German language as “mentally deficient” and “intellectually lazy.”

Did we really say these cruel things to each other?  Apparently we did; the record doesn’t lie.

In this instance, in an otherwise biblically driven faith community, some members didn’t take seriously the writer of Proverbs, who asserts that the tongue has the power of life and death. It is not a stretch to say, in prophetic hindsight, that a certain spiritual death occurred in some of our circles over this conflict.

Is there any lesson for us in 2011, any redemption for this dark spot in our history? Yes, if we frame it as a teachable moment for our life together today. Conflict over many issues has not gone away.  The complexities of living out our faith have only increased the chances of fracturing our communities by persons taking sides in controversial issues with careless words and demonization of the “other.”

We are divided over sexuality issues, over evangelism versus a social gospel, over worship styles, over political involvement, over a host of social issues involving right to life, religion in public schools—the list goes on.

Are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past by throwing thoughtless words at each other in these debates, levelling charges of faithlessness and posturing a kind of self-righteous anger with those who “don’t get it”?

Or will we, keeping the sins of our fathers and mothers of the past in perspective, engage in thoughtful, considerate and prayerful discourse on these matters, allowing that the person with whom we disagree is also on a spiritual journey and seeking to do God’s will?

While we have made remarkable progress in communication over the past 20 years with the help of mediators and other professionals in the social sciences, even yet we are tempted too often to resort to the old destructive tactics. Here is a set of guidelines, created by these professionals, that is applicable for our ongoing discussions at the national, area church and local levels.  It would be helpful for each of us to take this pledge to:

  • Treat each other respectfully so as to build trust, believing that we all desire to be faithful to Jesus the Christ, keeping our conversations open for candid and forthright exchanges. We will not ask questions or make statements in a way that will intimidate or judge others.
  • Share our concerns directly with individuals or groups with whom we have disagreements in a spirit of love and respect in keeping with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Critique ideas and suggestions, instead of people’s motives, intelligence or integrity, refraining from name-calling or labelling during or after the discussion.
  • Learn about various positions on the topic that we disagree on.
  • Indicate where we agree with those of other viewpoints, as well as where we disagree.
  • Seek to stay in community with each other although the discussion may be vigorous and full of tension.
  • Urge persons of various points of view to speak, and promise to listen to these positions seriously.
  • Seek conclusions informed by our points of agreement.
  • Be sensitive to the feelings and concerns of those who do not agree with the majority and respect their rights of conscience.
  • Abide by the decision of the majority, and if we disagree with it and wish to change it, work for change in ways consistent with these guidelines.
  • Include our disagreements in our prayers, not praying for the triumph of our viewpoints, but seeking God’s grace and remaining open to the vision God has for all of us.
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Thank you for drawing to our attention the fact that we've been here before! The articles on language transitions document well the passions invoked by issues we see as core to our value set or identity. It is difficult to separate these convictions and passions from our core calling to be Christians, Christ-like ones. Thanks too for pointing to some practices that may help us talk about these passionately held perspectives in a profoundly Christ-like way.

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